For a film about having one’s head in the clouds, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty remains pretty grounded.
With an adaptation by Steve Conrad that is based on James Thurber’s short story of the same name, Ben Stiller’s film is a daydream in that it is merely a distraction–a spectacle without relevance.
Walter Mitty, portrayed by Stiller, is a man who works as a negative assets manager for Life Magazine, organizing the company’s photo library and developing the few rolls of film they still receive from the elusive photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). In his free time Walter sends eHarmony “winks” to his office crush Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), as well as tends for his sister and elderly mother (Kathryn Hahn and Shirley MacLaine, respectively).
He defeatedly admits that he leads a dull life, and through this self-acceptance Walter develops a habit of extreme daydreaming and “zoning out”. His habit leads to conflicts with his co-workers, particularly the straight-laced transition manager (Adam Scott). But Walter finds solace in these moments of disconnect and they keep him going throughout his daily routine.
When the staff of Life is notified of the magazine’s imminent digitization Walter is put under pressure to deliver Sean’s final photograph, dubbed the “Quintessence of Life”, which will be used as the magazine’s last printed cover. Walter looks everywhere but is unsuccessful in locating it. With his job’s integrity on the line and the magazine’s deadline quickly approaching, he embarks on his own international expedition to track down O’Connell and find the Quintessence. The further away Walter travels from home, the less he finds the adventure staying within the confines of his own imagination.
The film hammers down its expositional notes to the point of irritating repetition. We are continuously shown how boring Walter is, from both his lack of a social life and social skills, as well as his habit of recession into his imagination, which occurs far too frequently and leaves us never really knowing what Walter’s true reality is as a result. His relapses back to the real world feel more annoying than humorous, and when his expedition finally starts some of the events seem way too cheesy (forget “jumping the shark”–change it to “smacking the shark in the face with a briefcase”). Blurred reality is an interesting theme, but it would seem better suited for a psychological drama than a feel-good adventure story.
Also gone from this is Stiller’s sharp wit that he brought to his last directorial effort, Tropic Thunder. Obviously that is a film with a completely different agenda, but Stiller was able to use satire to his advantage and create an over-the-top yet genuinely hysterical comedy. With Walter Mitty, the over-the-top element is still there but the charm is not. The mystery of the lost image doesn’t hold for very long, nor does the film’s message of “Make Your Own Adventure.” Walter’s adventure boils down to beautiful imagery and empty action sequences with him as an uninteresting protagonist.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a two-hour diversion, but like all daydreams don’t expect it to provide much in terms of insight.