With over two hours of Ben Stiller phone-calling, skateboarding and daydreaming, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” fails to reach the magnitude and complexity of its two-minute trailer.
Directed by Emmy-award winning actor Ben Stiller, who also plays the titular character, the film is based on the 1939 short story by James Thurber of the same name. Both pieces depict Walter Mitty as an aging, nondescript man who constantly detaches himself from reality by lapsing into grandiose fantasies.
Thurber’s brief story reveals a regular day in Mitty’s life as he fails to perform simple errands due to his daydreaming, which constantly irritates his unsympathetic spouse. The screenplay upgrades the setting to modern-day New York, where Mitty works as a photo-negative curator at Life magazine. Unmarried and lonely, he chases after co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), a frequent subject of his fantasies.
When Mitty loses a special photograph meant to be used on the cover of the magazine’s final issue, he treks mountains, volcanoes and seas worldwide in search of Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), the photojournalist who took the photo. The film portrays Mitty’s expedition as his desires of adventure and recognition, which formerly existed only in imagination, finally come to life.
In the short story, Mitty’s lofty ambitions seem unattainable as he continuously wastes his time dreaming instead of confronting the work it takes to accomplish his goals. The objective of the short story is to illustrate a realistic person with relatable problems, an appeal that dissipates in the film once Mitty transforms into a virtual action hero, changing lives and outsmarting any villain or catastrophe.
Other characters are not only shallow and 2-D but also painfully clichéd. A snarky, arrogant boss with a goatee and a drunk, heartbroken man singing karaoke serve as only a few examples. Not much more can be known about the woman of Mitty’s dreams except that she loves mystery novels and, conveniently, is recently divorced.
In addition, plot points are poorly constructed and seem forced to fit into a preconceived ending. For example, after Mitty learns that the photo was in his wallet that he lost, he sulks without making attempts to retrieve it. Although his mother (Shirley MacLaine) had saved his wallet for him near the beginning, she does not return it until after he is fired for not providing the photo. Stiller’s attempts to rally sympathy for Mitty are blatant since this problem could have easily been avoided.
The film shows breathtaking shots of scenery, although this may be in order to make Mitty’s experience seem spiritually euphoric. The only way the film positively assimilates the short story is by providing little differentiation between Mitty’s realm of fantasy and reality. The random and abrupt transitions effectively express Mitty’s escapist point of view
Although Mitty’s voyage may drive a more extended plot, it compromises the emotional satisfaction and originality of the film’s literary counterpart.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty runs 139 min. and is rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence.