Written by Steve Conrad
Directed by Ben Stiller
Any adaptation of the iconic James Thurber short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” would have to deviate vastly from the source, as it’s barely more than 2,000 words long. After a seemingly endless period in development hell, Ben Stiller, both as star and director, has remade The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, moving far away from both Thurber’s story and the Danny Kaye film from 1947. Here, the key word in the title is not “secret,” but “life.” The 2013 version of Walter Mitty is going to embrace life, live to the fullest, and understand its purpose, let alone its meaning. These are surface-level ambitions, heady aims in a grad-student kind of way that befit a surface-level film. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is slickly produced and shot; it is a shiny, stylish bauble, a cubic zirconia piece of cinema: pretty, but hollow.
Stiller’s Walter Mitty is, like Thurber’s, still a hopless, hapless daydreamer whose fantasies are far more exciting and interesting than his hum-drum life. He works for the magazine Life, which is being scaled back to an online-only operation and is gearing up to print its final issue. Mitty works in the photo negative department, and is tasked with prepping a shot from a famed photojournalist (Sean Penn) that he’s described in a letter to Walter as the “quintessence of life.” But, as luck would have it, that one shot is nowhere to be found, so Mitty, encouraged by the attractive new employee (Kristen Wiig) who he’s too shy to ask out, even on eHarmony, goes on a globe-trotting adventure to find the photographer and that supposedly iconic photo.
Though it’s only been 5 years since Tropic Thunder, Stiller’s last directorial effort, it feels a lot longer; in that gap, he’s filled his time by making more movies in which he plays a henpecked leading man, even though some of his best work has inspired him to break out of that rut and into more comically daring roles. There are a few flashes of that sly, sarcastic wit in Walter’s daydreams, specifically in one that parodies The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, of all things. But these moments—like, frankly, Walter’s daydreams, which go away before the first hour is up—are few and far between. By the end of the film, they feel random and misplaced. While Walter’s fantasies are shot and executed with flair and creativity, that creativity is fairly lacking from the rest of the film. Frankly, it’d be nice if Walter’s daydreams didn’t look more inviting than his real adventures.
Perhaps the problem is in the fervent earnestness with which Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad cling to fiercely throughout. Walter, as shy and reserved as he is, very much believes in the motto of Life, which sounds nice and inspiring, but in the same way that ads for sneakers or cars or jeans have faux-inspiring copy as their respective voiceover narration. So much of this film—crisply shot by Stuart Dryburgh—looks as carefully produced as the most high-budget advertisements playing in front of any major release, and is equally profound. And yet, as the film reaches its conclusion, it seems that its makers believe they’ve cracked the nut that is the unexplored life. It may not be surprising that Walter needs to have a real adventure to change his dull existence, but the unsubtle ways in which Stiller and Conrad disseminate that message are fairly unimpressive and more than a little exhausting.
Exhausting, too, is the weary overuse of product placement. It is a natural part of life that we are surrounded by brand names and images. Arguably, when some movies make up a fake version of a real product so they don’t have to pay for the rights, it’s aggravating. But then, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is aggravating on the other extreme, overloading itself with ads for delivery pizza and fast-food cinnamon rolls in ways that do not serve the script or the characters. One third-act conversation serves as another moment for Walter to marvel at how far he’s come in such a short time, and could take place anywhere. But the other character literally says, “Let’s go get a Cinnabon.” Immediately following this, both Walter and his dining partner comment on how tasty the food is, one saying it’s like “frosted heroin.” Have we come so far from the days when Tina Fey broke the fourth wall on 30 Rock and asked a company for money after shamelessly hawking their hot-button sales item? If product placement in film is a fact of life, it would be nice if filmmakers did not seem so crass about employing it.
Unfortunately, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is, among other things, moderately crass. It is not without passing charms, as in the daydreams which line the first third of the film as well as an ensemble rounded out by Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, and Shirley MacLaine. But it is, strangely, a celebration as much of life as it is of the material objects with which we are meant to fill our lives. Defining our adulthoods by where we work and what we eat is not unusual, but this film isn’t able to plumb the depths of modern, big-city humanity in ways that are trenchant or mature. In its handful of solid moments or laughs, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is fairly sharp or at least winning. But the rest of the film, sadly, feels like a full-length version of one of the parody trailers that opened Tropic Thunder back in 2008, a wholehearted embrace of the overly, shamefully sincere attempts at awards praise that deserve more eye rolls than back pats.
— Josh Spiegel