With Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Shirley MacLaine, Sean Penn. Written by Steve Conrad. Directed by Ben Stiller. Rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence. 114 minutes.
James Thurber’s famous short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” cannot be filmed. The 1939 story is about a man nagged and browbeaten by his wife who escapes into a rich fantasy world where he is a fighter pilot or world renowned surgeon. The dark punchline is his imagining bravely facing a firing squad, showing the courage so lacking in his own life.
When Hollywood has tried, as in the 1947 Danny Kaye musical, an aborted attempt in 1994 intended for Jim Carrey, and the new Ben Stiller film, it takes the idea of a weak character who daydreams and transforms it into something else. That something else inevitably defeats the entire point of Thurber’s story, since it turns the loser into someone who triumphs in real life in the last act. The result is a pat story about the worm turning that we’ve seen countless times.
Stiller, who also directed, plays Mitty as a sad sack who is in charge of the photography department at Life Magazine. New owners acquire the magazine to transform it into a website and the obnoxious head of the transition team (Adam Scott) takes every opportunity to humiliate Mitty. He demands Mitty produce a photograph from legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn in what amounts to a cameo) for the final cover. The photo, however, seems to have gone missing.
Now since Life magazine folded in 2000––except for a brief reappearance as a Sunday newspaper supplement––the premise is rather odd. The story is seemingly set in the present, not thirteen years ago. As if that’s not distracting enough, the movie is filled with commercial plugs for a well-known dating service, a national pizza chain, and several other commercial ventures who will not get free plugs here. The brand namedropping is so gratuitous that when the movie appears on television, the commercials will already be in place.
The plot requires Mitty to travel around the world and take absurd risks to track down O’Connell and the photo, making his real life much more exciting than his brief and not-very-interesting daydreams. Without giving anything away, you will likely anticipate where and how the photo is found and, perhaps, its content, long before either is revealed. Besides that thin storyline, we’re also asked to be concerned with Mitty’s crush on a co-worker (Kristen Wiig) who barely knows he’s there. That story, too, plays out in utterly mechanical fashion.
With the exception of the 1970s TV sitcom “My World And Welcome To It,” Thurber’s droll, whimsical and sometimes dark sense of humor has never really made the transfer to the screen. The 1959 British comedy “The Battle of the Sexes,” based on Thurber’s “The Catbird Seat,” may come closest. Even putting aside the comparison to the source material, Stiller’s film just kind of lays there. Yes, there are exotic locations including a trip to Iceland during a volcanic eruption, yet we’re never really engaged in Mitty’s dilemma in tracking down the photograph.
It should tell you something that the cast includes scene-stealers like Penn, Wiig, Shirley MacLaine (as Mitty’s mother), and Patton Oswalt (as an employee of the dating service), and that none of them make an impression. These are talented people, but they have to have something to work with, and this lame script isn’t it. The sad truth about this “Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” is that it should have remained a secret.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.