THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY
Telling Farce from Fantasy
Ben Stiller Directs Without Focus
Although many audience members may have forgotten James Thurber’s compact but dated 1939 short story about a milquetoast character whose heroic reveries allow him to escape from his mundane life since they were forced to read it in high school, you have a sense of the social analytics inherent in Thurber’s tale. Perhaps you pictured Walter Mitty as a shy and unassuming tailor who daydreams of becoming a fighter pilot. Whatever your expectations, you will be disappointed with Ben Stiller’s drab incarnation of Walter Mitty, a photo-technician for Life Magazine.
The filmmakers’ attempt at cheekiness fails in their use of the title and location of the long defunct LIFE Magazine. The choice feels more like exploitation than reverence. Walter experiments with online dating while dreaming of rescuing people from a burning building. The flame-engulfed opening sequence is pure cartoon spectacle. Walter has the hots for his coworker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). Sad then that Walter and Cheryl are about to be unemployed owing to the arrival of Adam Scott, a slimy corporate manager brought in to oversee the magazine’s final issue.
The news sends Walter on a desperate globetrotting mission to track down the missing negative that will serve as the magazine’s last cover. Intrigue resides in tracking down Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), a mysterious photojournalist with whom Walter has worked for many years but has never actually met. Walter’s adventures are more monotonous than enthralling, with the possible exception of a downhill skateboarding sequence involving some speed.
Obsequious product placement [see Papa Johns] cheapens “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and turns what ought to be an anti-capitalist film into a self-congratulating farce. The filmmakers’ ambiguous thematic statement is that corporations could at least “not be dicks” when firing people who have dedicated their lives to their job.
Ben Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad have squandered an opportunity to do something inspired with Thurber’s sloppy but seminal two-and-one-half-page story. Rather than imagine how someone like Terry Gilliam [think “Brazil”] might approach Thurber’s socially ripe source material, they have merely imposed a formulaic script that still doesn’t hit its marks.
Ben Stiller directs the movie like a feel-good adventure that doesn’t have to accomplish anything more than piece together a few unrelated action sequences for audiences to stare blankly at. Kristen Wiig elevates the movie whenever she’s onscreen, which is not enough. The cold irony is that the movie mocks the very thing it pretends to value, itself.
Rated PG. 125 mins. (C-) (Two stars - out of five/no halves)
Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.