Review: ‘Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ Should Have a Different Name

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.

Still, it’s a decent choice for date night if you’re not into HobbitsDisney, or Leonardo DiCaprio’s semi-naked middle-aged body. 

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.

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  • Candice Frederick

    hmmmm i’m kinda mixed on this one..

  • Steven Powell

    I have to say this movie for all of its issues is one of the best I have seen in a very long time. I have already seen it twice. Metaphors galore and life pondering 🙂

  • MathMom

    “It could be a movie family watches together, although it’s not quite slapstick enough to capture children’s attention.”

    Don’t know if I’ll see the movie or not, but this line is everything that is wrong with “family” movies today. It assumes that children are so stupid they have to have everything written in 72-point red font, punctuated with fart humor or dreadful over-acting.

    I saw The Sound of Music when I was 11, Bambi when I was about 8, and Mary Poppins when I was 9. None had slapstick. They were compelling stories, and thus they captivated my attention for the entire movie. My sister was at these movies too, and she was four years younger than me. No “slapstick” needed for her, either.

    Try giving children real meat on the bones in the movies you let them see, instead of the saccharine and stupid shows that are released for children. You may be surprised by what they like.

  • Jill G. Roberts

    Since you’re the one that brought up the hurdles needed to help an audience relate, consider that factor alone as a reason this movie is neither James Thurber’s or actor Danny Kaye’s Mitty. Quoting The Hollywood Reporter: “Stiller says, What I liked about Steve’s script was the idea that Walter wasn’t really imagining himself as someone else, he was imagining a better version of himself. It’s a very relatable idea.”

    We are neither a homogenous society trying to all dream the same dream and declare ourselves “inscrutable to the last,” as the literary Mitty seems. And we are also not the bored Post-WWII Americans in the midst of McCarthyism seeking escape from over-protective mothers.

    And I’m glad this movie is exactly the family movie for me. My husband and I, plus my fourteen year old daughter and twenty year old son really enjoyed it. We all recognize the changes in the world. Now we also see how we must better ourselves to meet reality with a good dose of imagination.

  • I’m glad you liked it.

  • I absolutely agree with you. Still, a movie has to have SOMETHING the kids can relate to. A grown man seeking to reinvent himself is not really that thing.

  • Great. I’m glad you liked it. Thanks for commenting.

  • Audra Snayko

    I completely disagree on the family aspect. I took my 12 yr old son to see it at his request. We both enjoyed it very much and the messages weren’t lost on him. Perhaps the idea that children need to have slapstick or stupid humor to enjoy themselves is part of the problem today. I also thought the backdrop of Life Magazine (and its incarnation into Life Online), as well as the eHarmony tie in, were fantastic. How exactly does one live life online…as so many people attempt to do these days. It was a commentary on what our society has become and what it needs to return to. All in all compared to some of the trash on film these days I think it was very well done.