The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Movie Information

The Story: James Thurber's short story gets turned into a sprawling nerd-empowerment fantasy in this latest big-screen treatment. The Lowdown: It's good to look at and is certainly well-made, but it all ends up feeling like a vanity project for director-star Ben Stiller. Plus, it's rather boring.
Genre: Nerd Empowerment Fantasy
Director: Ben Stiller (Tropic Thunder)
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Kathryn Hahn, Adam Scott, Adrian Martinez, Sean Penn
Rated: PG

At first I thought, “I’m too old for this.” Then I thought, “Ben Stiller’s too old for this.” Finally, I settled into a kind of bored slump trying to figure out what Stiller actually hoped to accomplish with this unfocused and overly ambitious undertaking. Part of the problem is the source material. James Thurber’s 1939 short story about a henpecked husband who sought refuge from his existence by lapsing into daydreams of himself as an exciting and glamorous man lasted two pages. Two pages is about all the story can bear. The movie runs 125 minutes, and all the daydreams occur in roughly the first 30 minutes. That leaves 90 minutes to fill.

The same basic problem plagued the 1947 Norman Z. McLeod version with Danny Kaye. There, they “solved” it by grafting on a thrill comedy tailored to Kaye’s unique … talents. (I am not an admirer of Kaye or the film. For that matter, I’ve never quite gotten the fuss over the short story.) Here, the solution — if that it can be called — is to turn the story into your basic nerd-empowerment story, which allows our hero to become everything he imagines himself to be (without him quite realizing it, of course). The storyline — which here owes more than a little to Preston Sturges’ The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947) — is so old that it predates the concept of nerdiness.

Even so, it could have worked well enough — despite the fact that the fantasy here seems squarely aimed at 14-year-old boys — but not with Ben Stiller. Not only is the nearly 50-year-old Stiller too old for the role, but he’s unconvincing as a nerd. Stiller inevitably exudes a sense of his own belief in how cool he is — however dubious that belief may be. I never once got the sense of Walter Mitty finding his inner, manly action hero. All I got was Stiller showing off that he’s really not a nerd at all but is this really cool guy — and he has made this vanity project to prove it.

The basic premise is that Mitty is this uber-nebbish who works as a “negative assets manager” (this means he keeps the photo negatives) for Life magazine, which has just been acquired by another company — one that plans to cut staff and turn it into an online publication. Ace photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) delivers a roll of film into Mitty’s hands — a roll that contains the photo for the cover of the magazine’s final print issue. (We will overlook the improbability of a cover photo on 35 mm film.) The problem is, the negative in question is missing and O’Connell is off on some exotic photo shoot in some unknown, exotic locale. In movie logic, this means that Mitty will go track him down. In the process, Mitty will find himself and wow the girl of his dreams (Kristen Wiig) in the bargain.

In its favor, there’s one near-brilliant sequence using David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Unfortunately, that takes up maybe three minutes, leaving about two hours to deal with. OK, the film — apart from some dodgy CGI — looks terrific. The cinematography is first-rate and is sometimes dazzling in itself. The supporting cast is generally solid, though Adam Scott doing his patented distinguished-douchery thing is a bit much. On the other hand, there’s way too much product-placement — sometimes the movie feels like a long commercial for and Papa John’s. In the end, it’s a good-looking movie that misses the mark most of the time. Frankly, it’s also a bit of a bore. Rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence.

Playing at Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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