If asking women out is difficult for you at the age of 45, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty just might be the best movie you’ve ever seen. Ostensibly the story of a daydreaming cubicle dweller who embarks on an epic journey to retrieve a missing photo, Ben Stiller’s gorgeous new screensaver travels incredibly far to go an extremely short distance – namely, earning the courage to confess his interest in a coworker.
Reworking James Thurber’s 1939 short story into a wake-up call for middle-aged white men to stop dreaming and start living, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is weakly life-affirming, the kind of empty-headed cinematic platitude that mistakes irresponsibility for adventure and accomplishment for meaning.
Stiller plays Mitty, an archivist at Life entrusted with negatives meant by photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) to grace the magazine’s final cover. When a key image goes missing, Mitty is pressured by his boss Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) to turn it over, even as layoffs begin decimating the publication’s ranks.
Enlisting the help of a company accountant, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), to find O’Connell’s whereabouts, Mitty embarks on a frantic journey across the globe to find the shutterbug and retrieve the photo. But as he finds himself in increasingly improbable circumstances, Mitty’s daydreams about O’Connell’s life become real life-threatening experiences, and his hunt for the image quickly transforms into a search for his inner adventurer.
The premise of the original short story is that an ordinary man escapes into his imagination to get away from the mundane experiences in everyday life – and honestly, at a time when unemployment is rampant and wealth disparity is so enormous, that’s an idea that could be amazingly resonant to many people. But Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad reinvent Mitty as a do-nothing dreamer who unwittingly embarks on the kinds of adventures he previously experienced only vicariously through O’Connell’s photography.
Where that change eventually falls short is in portraying the character’s thrill-seeking as a sort of spiritual empowerment, largely ignoring the physical and financial dangers of dropping a couple of thousand dollars on a flight around the world to literally swim with sharks for a single negative that likely will not save his job. Moreover, the character’s “adventures” are largely superficial set pieces that do nothing to reinforce the insularity of his life, favoring beautiful imagery and glib punch lines instead of something more emotionally meaningful.
Notwithstanding how mostly horrible the product placement (Papa John’s, eHarmony) is, the film does remarkably little with the idea of Life shutting down its presses, except to underscore the inexorable advent of the digital age, and of course the shameless – and heartless – profiteering of corporations. The idea that a corporation’s employees are the lifeblood of its business is hardly new or original, and Stiller turns his seemingly inevitable termination (it’s abundantly clear from frame one that nobody’s surviving layoffs) into a moment of entirely pointless self-actualization that means nothing and accomplishes nothing.
Meanwhile, there’s an ongoing obsession Mitty has with Cheryl, whom he only has the courage to talk to in his daydreams (the mountain-climbing scene from the trailers is an example of how he tries to woo her in his head). While the story could have been about how he goes on a grand adventure only to realize he can get what he wants – a date with Cheryl – literally by asking for it, Stiller diffuses his epiphany into about five separate moments of realization, without any of them really seeming to come naturally from the previous one.
Ultimately, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is probably for people who find Forrest Gump profound, and equate who its message to “you can do anything no matter where you come from or who you are” – which is phony, because Gump dumb-lucks his way through life without ever being a real agent of anything except survival. While I realize that sounds condescending, it’s only meant to underscore the misguidedness of the movie’s premise, and the intoxicating confusion of Mitty’s execution – and ultimately feels like the sort of idea only someone who never really struggled could promote.
Should you go on a whirlwind adventure that empties your bank account and accelerates your unemployment, but leaves you with a great story to tell, and a date? The Secret Life of Walter Mitty says yes. Let’s hope there’s a sequel, so it can tell us how to pay for it.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens Wednesday.