Directed by Ben Stiller. Screenplay by Steve Conrad; screen story by Steve Conrad; based on the short story by James Thurber. Produced by Stuart Cornfeld, Samuel Goldwyn Jr., John Goldwyn, Ben Stiller. Music by Theodore Shapiro. Photographed by Stuart Dryburgh. Edited by Greg Hayden. Production designed by Jeff Mann. Starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, John Daly, Kathryn Hahn, Terence Bernie Hines, Adam Scott, Paul Fitzgerald.
Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty…
Well, yeah. There’s no two ways about it. This is Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Not Danny Kaye’s. And certainly not James Thurber’s. Stiller’s take on this material (first published as a short story in 1939) takes the barest of threads from its source material (nerd has rich and varied fantasy life) and goes off on its own, cute, direction. But it’s a game of two halves. It’s perfectly okay when it’s being a sincere travelogue about a socially awkward nebbish, Walter (played by Stiller). It’s also never more awkward when it stops for daydream sequences that sometimes play like extended sketches. Naturally, that staccato rhythm is perhaps part of the whole package when you’re adapting Walter Mitty. But still. There’s got to be a way to make a new adaptation of this work feel cohesive. But this one doesn’t, creating an altogether lumpy package that feels–at times–irresponsibly expanded.
That’s unfortunate, but it’s not a deal-breaker, because Walter Mitty, despite its tonal disconnects, is so different from anything else at the multiplex this season, and deserves to be seen. It’s nice, and sweet and genuine. Wry without being cynical. Playful yet still evoking that reasonably passes for wisdom. Its PG rating courts an audience that prefers it when a movie is–more than anything else–pleasant. And it is pleasant. It’s also not very substantial. Stiller is now two years shy of 50, which might explain why he’s made a movie that feels at times engineered to appeal to financially well-off moms and dads.
In the short story, Walter Mitty is a hen-pecked dweeb. Here he’s a photo developer at Life Magazine, loses a precious negative containing a masterpiece print by photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn).The loss could not have come at a worse time, as Life is being overtaken by a corporate “problem solver” (read: “cost-cutter and person-firer”) played by Adam Scott, who is shifting the entire magazine onto the Internet. Not only could Walter’s mistake cost him his job, but his co-worker crush Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) might be herself on the way out the door. Spurred on by Cheryl’s sweetness, the socially stunted Walter (who has never been on an adventure in his life) takes it upon himself to crack the case and track down O’Connell, which means traveling from Greenland to Iceland and beyond on exploits far more dangerous and hard than anything his dreams could have prepared him for.
Well, sort of. Despite Walter Mitty‘s insistence that once Walter gets on the plane, it’s for real, the movie retains a very whimsical tone…so much so that every five minutes you anticipate a point where Walter is going to wake up and reveal this has all been an elaborate (and lengthy) dream sequence. Sometimes the weird mixture works: there’s a sequence in a bar in Greenland, where Walter waffles on getting into a drunken helicopter pilot’s ride-until a phantom Cheryl appears behind him on stage and starts urging him through song. Other moments, involving the unlikely details of a sudden volcano eruption, are aggressively twee and self-conscious, and at every turns the film soft-pedals the very legitimate danger that Walter might be in by going on his merry chase. Warning, kids: Walter Mitty may indeed not know what he’s doing while going around the world. But one arguably should.
There’s so much to like in Walter Mitty, especially its centerpiece hook of being that rarely-seen artifact: the romantic globetrotting adventure, like a James Bond movie without the violence. The locations are beautifully realized by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, and although sometimes we are probably looking at special effects, the results are slick and evocative. And it also has a wonderful supporting cast, headlined by Shirley McClaine as Walter’s long-suffering mother and Kathryn Hahn as his free-spirited sister. Wiig’s contribution is undeniable as well, showing here that, despite her considerable comic chops, she can dial down and play charming. Stiller is excellent most of the time, when he’s being sincere and not leaning on irony as a kind of insurance policy. When Penn finally shows up as the sought-after O’Connell, he does a good job of making Sean the kind of guy you want to admire in one moment and strangle the next. The exception to the great casting, however, is Adam Scott: usually an incredibly dependable comic actor, here one-note and irritating.
So the film is effervescent and cute, and…worth seeing. Is it great? No, not at all. It contains too many moments of noodling. Some of Walter’s waking dreams are well-executed in how surprising and fast they are. Others are less successful, such as his Benjamin Button-inspired fantasy for his possible life with Cheryl that is just odd. Every once in a while an idea is trotted out and the film changes pace to accommodate it, such as a slapstick scene at a TSA checkpoint seen through nothing but x-rays, and encounters with locals in countries there and yonder that act uncannily as if they know they are in a comedy. The film overall is downright shameless in its desire to please, particularly when it comes to entities who must have paid a good deal for product placement. (Papa Johns, eHarmony, Cinnabon and more all get trotted out for incredibly annoying extended plugs).
Walter Mitty could possibly have benefited from another script rewrite: something to make the danger more dangerous, or the comedy funnier. As it stands, it’s one big shaggy dog story with some visual flair and a plot that ends with more of a sheepish shrug than I think was intended. In essence, the movie Walter Mitty is like Walter himself: nice, sweet, good-looking, and pretty unmemorable.