Review: ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) imagines himself as a fearless mountain climber who captures the attention of his co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). TM and © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Photo by Wilson Webb

A dorky, somewhat boring sad sack is the victim of constant bad luck, yet things usually turn out well for him in the end. Who am I describing? If you guessed Ben Stiller in a December blockbuster comedy, ding ding! You’re correct.

This time around though, Stiller’s latest character is Walter Mitty, a dorky, somewhat boring sad sack who’s been a name in pop culture for over 70 years.

Mitty, who’s known for his habit of constantly dozing off into his daydreamer’s world of heroic adventures, first appeared James Thurber’s 1939 short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Danny Kaye portrayed him in the 1947 film adaptation of the same name, and now, Stiller stars as a modern-day Mitty (a role it almost seems he was meant to play) in the latest version, which has been 20 years in the making. After numerous recasts and script rewrites, American film producers Samuel and John Goldwyn eventually teamed up with Stiller, who served as co-producer and director.

In a film that strives to be contemporary, with its use of iPhones and mentions of Instagram, our latest incarnation of Mitty is ironically a Life magazine employee who works in the negative assets photography department. He and his fellow co-workers have found out the magazine is releasing its final print issue and going digital, which means most of its employees are getting sacked. For the final issue, the mysterious photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) mails Mitty a bunch of photos, including negative 25, which he suggests be used for the magazine cover. Mitty, whose been working at Life for 16 years, has never once lost a photo. Now, of course, he can’t locate the precious negative that his new arrogant bosses (headed by an awkwardly bearded Adam Scott) are demanding.

For much of the first act, the film manages to capture a bit of the essence of Thurber’s story in the daydreams themselves. Just like Thurber’s character, Stiller’s constantly zones out during conversations and moments that trigger epic adventures in his head, which are the highlights of the film. His most amusing is one he has during a conversation with his love interest and new co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), with whom he imagines growing old together in a twisted, Benjamin Button type of way, with Stiller as a hilarious infant-sized old man.

But unlike Thurber’s Mitty, Stiller’s is hopelessly single and relies on an eHarmony representative (Patton Oswalt) to set up his online dating profile, which starts to gain “winks” when Mitty finally goes on a real-life “heroic” adventure to Greenland, Iceland and the Himalayas, to track down the elusive Sean O’Connell and the missing negative.

This is when the film starts to fall short. What we get is lovely scenery, but a journey that’s not as interesting as the movie seems to think it is.

Mitty skateboards down a never-ending road in Iceland (where some of it was actually filmed), hikes in the Himalayas, escapes an erupting volcano and plays soccer to the music of current alternative bands. This is cool and all, but it feels like a really long advertisement for National Geographic mixed with a Nikon commercial, which serves as an opportunity for Stiller to show off as a director, giving us certain scenes that are entertaining (such as a brilliant x-ray vision fight with TSA workers) but out of place.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is ultimately a pretty film that gives off an uncomfortably sentimental vibe, with an ending that seems almost too perfect. Its PG rating makes it a great film for families to see over the holiday break, but for those looking for a hard-hitting, emotion-triggering story with depth and substance, you might have better luck pulling a Mitty and day dreaming one in your head.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is playing at area theaters.

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