The Secret Life of Walter Mitty review

One of Roger Ebert’s most respected philosophies as a film critic was judging each film by its own merits. In some cases, this proved especially difficult, and if Ebert were alive today, he might well agree that Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is such a case. Adapted from James Thurber’s groundbreaking 1939 short story of the same name, which was previously made into a 1947 Danny Kaye feature, Mitty ultimately succeeds in little more than breaking away entirely from its source material. Indeed, the film is so creatively unfocused and indecisive (as one might expect from a picture billed as a “fantasy-adventure comedy-drama”) that utilizing Thurber may very well have redeemed Stiller’s film.

It is somewhat shocking to realize that the days when Ben Stiller was an inescapable name in comedies are nearly a decade behind us, with his recent vehicles few, far between, and overall mediocre at best (see Greenberg or Little Fockers … wait a minute, don’t). Mitty is similarly no return to form, with Stiller playing the titular role in a fatigued, expressionless manner unfit for a character that undergoes such fantastic adventures through both daydreams and reality. In addition to the character’s trademark “zoning out,” Mitty is barely a functioning human, rarely speaking comprehensively, entering a near-catatonic state in the middle of a crowded street, and ignoring every little word uttered at him in what is either a misinterpretation of the concept of Walter Mitty or a cruelly exaggerated mockery of those with attention deficit disorder.

Even more jarring is the lack of development regarding the supporting cast (i.e. everyone but Stiller). Originally, Mitty was plagued with a domineering wife and his melodramatic, sometimes fatal fantasies were escape mechanisms. Perhaps because the idea of a henpecked husband as a lead character could be viewed as non-PC today, Stiller’s loopiness can be more easily interpreted as boredom with his personal alienation and lack of experience. His acquaintances consist of a doting but senile widowed mother (Shirley MacLaine), a sister (Kathryn Hawn) who does little more here than portray Rizzo in an off-Broadway and off-screen production of Grease, and his colleagues at Life magazine, managed by the arrogant Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), whose goals as a detestable antagonist fall short; his frustrations with the incompetence of Mitty, whom he naturally dismisses as a spacey “Major Tom” in tribute to David Bowie, are nearly sympathetic and more believable than the fact that such a prestigious magazine would hire someone as unprofessional as Mitty in the first place. The two largest vacancies in Mitty’s life—his lack of a father figure and significant other—form the apex of his pathetic life. The premature death of Mitty’s father led him to seek refuge in, of all places, the symbolically titled Papa John’s pizzeria (Stiller’s conjuring of Freud could use some work). Similarly, his infatuation with fellow Life employee Cheryl Melhoff (Kristin Wiig) is disturbingly obsessive. Like a thirty-something Little Red Haired Girl, she barely knows he exists, and his (and the audience’s) knowledge of her is limited to the few facts she shares to the world on her eHarmony account. Is she aloof or a so-called “manic pixie dream girl” waiting to happen? Don’t expect to find an answer here.

During one of his countless daydreams, Mitty envisions himself as suffering from “Benjamin Button’s disease” and Wiig’s character taking care of him during his winter years as an wrinkled infant who acts like a ventriloquist’s dummy. Though the inane humor of this moment made me cringe, Stiller could have also benefitted from adapting Thurber’s story in a similar fashion to how F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” was put on screen: Expanding its scope instead of digressing abruptly. Halfway through the film, Stiller almost entirely abandons Mitty’s fantasies, placing him on a real-world trek through multiple countries including Greenland (essentially depicted as Solvang with ice), Iceland (Solvang without ice), and the Himalayas, all while dodging a shark attack and an airport arrest reminiscent of his “bomb” incident from Meet the Parents. While this is intended to make Mitty’s once mundane life even more eventful than his overactive imagination, it is almost less engaging than Mitty’s most mundane fantasy (making a snide remark at his boss’ beard in an elevator)—a shaggy dog story that left this viewer sighing in disappointment, much like Mitty himself each time he flew back from his personal Mars to find himself living in a world every bit as empty as it was when he left it.

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