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.

Review: ‘The Watch’ Squanders its Promise

The introductory scene in Ben Stiller’s latest comedy “The Watch” is delightful.

In a montage both funny and surprisingly sweet, Evan (Stiller) takes us on a tour of his Midwestern life: his quiet, idyllic town, his astonishingly satisfying career as a manager at Costco, and his sexually unexciting but warm marriage to Abby (Rosemary DeWitt). What’s more, Costco’s night watchman has just become an American citizen, an accomplishment he celebrates by getting a big ole American tattoo and living large inside the darkened Costco.

The whole thing is funny without being mean or mocking and we begin to think that this comedy might be a send up of the trend in Hollywood to look down at “fly over country” and people living happy, normal lives. A sort of tribute to the everyday man.

But then the aliens kill that night watchmen and Vince Vaughn breaks out his first genitalia joke and we lose the buzz.

You see, once Evan discovers the dead night watchman, he organizes a neighborhood watch. Bob (Vaughn) joins because he’s effectively single parenting his daughter while his wife travels and needs some man time. Franklin (Jonah Hill) signs up to have the power and prestige denied him when he failed the police exam. And Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade)? Well, we’re not exactly sure why he’s there, although it may have something to do with hot, lonely women.

The boys quickly switch from foul-mouthed vigilantes to foul-mouthed alien hunters. The movie can’t decide if it wants to be a crude comedy or a suspenseful alien thriller.

In this case, their path to saving the Costco and the world from aliens leads, as so often is the case in these movies, to a raging teen party and an adult orgy. And genitalia jokes. Lots of genitalia jokes.

Did I mention the movie is rated R? In addition to the long, elaborate, explicit genitalia jokes, there is pervasive language, some violence, sexual situations, and some nudity in the context of that aforementioned orgy scene.

Which all sounds exciting, I’m sure, but it’s not.

Turns out, there are only so many jokes you can make about the male sex organ. And most of them have been made earlier and better than this film.

It’s a shame too, because the underlying characters are pretty likable. Stiller’s Evan may be boring, but he’s a good guy contented with his life, his wife, and his future. Vaughn’s Bob has one mission in life: To protect the virtue of his teenage daughter from the boys (or aliens) who are hell-bent on violating it. He’s closer to church-going conservative than Hollywood libertine, if it weren’t for that potty mouth.

Franklin, however, is a little more unfortunate. The film first encountered controversy when it was titled “Neighborhood Watch.” In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting by a neighborhood watchman, the studio changed the name to “The Watch.” Now, a week after the  Aurora shootings, Jonah Hill’s cop wannabe character is a humorous take on the unhinged weirdo with a unsettling arsenal of lethal weapons under his bed and an unhealthy fascination with paramilitary paraphernalia.

It doesn’t seem so funny this week.

If it were a better movie, we could get past the cringe-inducing reminders of the Colorado horror.

As it is, better to skip the whole thing and hope Stiller recovers his Zoolander magic the next time around.