To adequately discuss the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty starring Ben Stiller, one must thoroughly divorce it from the short story by James Thurber on which it is loosely based.
In fact, the movie turns the short story on its head and essentially negates it.
This negation doesn’t mean the movie is bad – in fact it’s quite charming – but it does mean that the depth, humor, and relatability of Thurber’s most famous work are absent in Stiller’s adaptation.
Stiller, who also directs, is the titular character – a quiet, mousey photo handler at Life Magazine. Prone to lapse into flights of fancy, Mitty creates imaginary worlds with himself as hero while in real life only barely managing to speak a few tentative words to his crush Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). He moons around, with nothing to put on his online dating profile. He has never actually done much. All the action is inside his head.
As the movie opens, the magazine is facing its last days. The last known photographer to still use film, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), has sent a final beautiful photograph on a negative that has gone missing.
And so Mitty does something very un-Mitty-like. He goes in search of the negative, a search that leads to remote and beautiful parts of the globe.
The original Walter Mitty, the one created by Thurber, is a put-upon husband who meekly caters to his wife’s demands while all the time living in a fantasy of Nazi-hunting or brilliant oratory before a hushed court.
He never – and this is key – gets past his wife’s line of sight, much less on an actual airplane.
The literary Mitty is a tale of modern manhood, of a would-be warrior-hunter condemned to a suburban life of waiting for his wife to get her hair done.
The Stiller version of Mitty is the familiar Hollywood tale of a timid zero who does something crazy and daring, thereby waking up and finding himself.
For this familiar Hollywood trope, it’s a pretty good version. The scenery, including Iceland and (supposedly) Afghanistan, is beautiful. Stiller and Wiig have both matured into passable actors, funny at times but more than merely funny. They’re relatable.
The setting is a little strange with Life Magazine as a backdrop, photos on film strip, even a telegram delivery. It feels like a fifty-year-old script tortured into modernity. Plus, the usually excellent Adam Scott as an insufferable corporate hit man misses the mark, neither a funny man nor a satisfying nemesis.
Rated PG, the movie has only a few crude moments and some light violence. It could be a movie family watches together, although it’s not quite slapstick enough to capture children’s attention.
Still, there are enough quirky, charming moments that do not feel route as Walter travels the odd corners of the world to elevate the film to something enjoyable. It has its own sense of delight.
The moral, beyond the obvious “stop dreaming and start living!” is whispered by our elusive photographer on a beautifully desolate mountainside: “Beautiful things don’t seek attention.” This is perfect for our times, just as Thurber’s Mitty was evocative of his. If that idea had been explored more, it would have been a far better film.
Perhaps this proactive, effective Walter Mitty should have a different name than the daydreaming hero from Thurber’s work, but whoever he is, he’s a good man to meet.