After taking a few pot-shots at shameless awards pandering with his last directorial effort, the patchy comedy Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller changes pace with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a mid-life crisis drama and (un-ironically) aspiring awards contender.
A film long in development (I recall it being a Steven Spielberg/Jim Carrey project over a decade ago), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the second film to be adapted from James Thurber’s classic short story, that originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1939. The story is extremely short, you could read it in five minutes, and so naturally making a film out of it requires some serious expansion (I wonder what the Hobbit-haters will make of that?). The film takes basically nothing from the source except the main character’s name and the concept of him being a daydreamer, everything else is the invention of screenwriter Steve Conrad (The Weather Man).
Updating the concept to the present day, this Walter Mitty is a ‘negative assets manager’ working for LIFE magazine in New York. The magazine has just been taken over and the new managers (led by a stereotypical corporate bully played by Adam Scott) are dropping the print edition, turning it into an online-only publication, leaving many employees, such as Mitty, with their jobs threatened.
Other than his job, Mitty seems to have very little going on. He’s presented as a timid and dull individual, who’s trying to contact a co-worker (Kristen Wiig) using an online dating site as he’s too shy to just approach her in person. His ‘everyman’ nature is, if anything, a little overdone, a phone call reveals that he’s never really been anywhere in his life or done anything of note, though later we learn that he (rather conveniently) possesses expert skateboarding skills (!), a development that’s a little unconvincing.
Mitty is a daydreamer though, constantly ‘zoning out’ into his imagination, even when in mid conversation. Stiller segues into these without any notable indication that they’re beginning, and they vary from action scenes to romantic ones. Some work well but other’s not so much, there’s a weird Benjamin Button parody scene that feels both dated and totally out of place.
The McGuffin of the film is that the picture sent in for the final cover of LIFE has been somehow misplaced, and Mitty must locate the maverick photographer responsible for it (Sean Penn). Unfortunately for Mittly, he’s an old-school freelance photojournalist, who shuns any and all modern technology, meaning he could be anywhere in the world and can’t be contacted. It’s quite a contrived excuse to send Mitty off on an adventure in this present day setting, but one I could just about get past.
The film’s message is unabashedly obvious; as Walter starts actually experiencing new and exciting things for the first time, he stops daydreaming about them (sure it’s great to get out there in the world, but daydreaming’s not such a bad thing either right?). The film ceases being clear as to what is a product of Walter’s imagination and what isn’t though, and I don’t believe it’s trying to be ambiguous at all. I was certain that he was dreaming about escaping a shark attack in one scene but apparently that really happened. It’s particularly off-putting in a preposterous encounter with some Icelandic teenagers who happily exchange a pristine longboard with Mitty for a battered old Stretch Armstrong doll.
Mitty’s arc of self-discovery treads some wearily familiar thematic territory, but it is often beautifully photographed. Stiller is clearly attempting to grow as a director, with a number of audacious shots here. The overall film suffers from its numerous credibility-stretching developments and contrivances, and Kristen Wiig’s romantic interest feels totally side-lined, but its heart is in the right place. I felt the film was constantly threatening to cop-out upon concluding the plot’s driving force, but it thankfully finds a satisfactory note to end on, however, I can’t see this winning Stiller any Oscars.