Film review: Here’s a secret—’Walter Mitty’ is a mess

Ben Stiller and Kristin Wiig will no doubt attract viewers to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Too bad there’s not much there to see.

Two stars

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott. Directed by Ben Stiller. Rated PG. Now playing.

It’s hard to guess how many of the people who’ll see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty will be familiar with James Thurber’s classic 1939 short story, which was such a phenomenon that its title character instantly became cultural shorthand for a meek, hapless dreamer. (A roughly contemporaneous film adaptation starred Danny Kaye.) Ben Stiller’s aggressively bathetic take on the material, however, isn’t likely to satisfy Thurber fans or neophytes, resembling as it does a feature-length soft drink commercial. Privileging special effects over his putative hero’s psyche, Stiller, who directed in addition to playing the title role, seems to perceive Mitty as a sort of superhero of the imagination, which completely undermines the story’s satirical intent; at the same time, the knowledge that nothing is real scuttles any thrills. It’s the worst of both worlds.

In this version, Mitty toils in the photo department of Life magazine, which is putting together its very last print edition. (Strange choice, since Life actually folded more than a decade ago, but presumably Stiller felt that Life as a title carried more freshman-comp resonance than, say, Time.) When a crucial negative intended for the cover goes missing, Mitty leaves his comfortable nest for the first time to recover it, in part thanks to perceived encouragement from a new colleague (Kristen Wiig) he hopes to favorably impress. Adventures both real and (mostly) imagined follow, taking Mitty from the icy, shark-infested waters of Greenland to the mountains of Afghanistan. Indeed, his travels are so extensive and forbidding that it’s often difficult to be certain whether or not we’re currently inside Mitty’s dream-addled head.

Granted, Thurber’s story is a mere doodle, running only a few pages, and any film adaptation (including the Danny Kaye version) needs to expand it considerably, finding something for Mitty to do besides leap from one absurd fantasy to another. But Stiller seems profoundly uninterested in what might drive a perpetual dreamer, merely giving him a standard sad-sack existence that anybody would want to escape. Instead, the focus is squarely on sudden eruptions of the impossible, which are now so ubiquitous in the multiplex that they have little impact in this context—especially given that Mitty’s actual exploits are themselves more awe-inspiring than anything most of the movie’s audience will ever have experienced. Whatever cultural currency the name Walter Mitty still possesses will only be diminished.

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