Sometimes daydreams do come true. At least, that’s what the Goldwyn family must be feeling now that their long-delayed “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” update finally exists, smarter and less screwball than previous attempts at the material have been. After nearly two decades of rewrites and recasting — during which Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, Mike Myers and Sacha Baron Cohen were each attached — the role falls to Ben Stiller, who also directs. Rather than channeling James Thurber’s satirical tone, Stiller plays it mostly earnest, spinning what feels like a feature-length “Just Do It” ad for restless middle-aged auds, on whom its reasonably commercial prospects depend.
In the 74 years since Thurber’s short story appeared in The New Yorker, the name Walter Mitty has become synonymous with banal men who harbor delusions of heroism — which is practically the only thing Steven Conrad’s script takes from the brief (two-and-a-half pages) and virtually plotless source material. Here, Walter works in the photo department of Life magazine, which has just been acquired by a squad of bearded beancounters led by Adam Scott, tasked with overseeing the final print issue.
Though the shakeup at the magazine means that most of the staff will lose their jobs, Walter’s overnight awakening owes more to his recent crush on a new co-worker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). Frankly, it’s a miracle that Walter still has a job, stashed away like “Office Space’”s Milton at a dimly lit desk, managing camera negatives in a world where few still shoot on celluloid.
It’s a bizarrely old-fashioned choice for this modern reimagining, considering that the real Life ceased publishing in 2000 (followed by a short revival as a weekly, Parade-style newspaper insert), but also poignant in its own way. After all, Life is precisely what Walter has been missing out on during his 16 years of faithful service, which makes the magazine’s motto — “…to see the world (and) things dangerous to come to…” — an appropriate mantra for his first real adventure.
Tasked with tracking down the “quintessential” cover image from the magazine’s star photog (a perfectly cast Sean Penn, whom we already assume spends more time thrill-seeking than shaving), Walter flies to Greenland and starts jumping out of helicopters, swimming with sharks and skateboarding toward an erupting volcano — the sort of derring-do that makes his imagination look positively tame by comparison. Such activities also far outstrip anything Danny Kaye tried in the more overtly comic 1947 version, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, Sr.
But just because Stiller has access to CGI doesn’t mean he’s hell-bent on using it. Naturally, vfx factor into Walter’s fantasies, including an asphalt-surfing fight sequence that would be right at home in an Avengers movie, but the action remains mostly this side of cartoonish. If anything, the most impressive visual trick involves the pic’s unique way of integrating text — from the opening credits to an SMS message — into Walter’s environment.
As far back as 1939, Thurber’s story already owed a certain debt to cinema, fading in and out of Walter’s reveries the way moving pictures did. In the time since, filmmakers have developed what might as well be called the “Walter Mitty effect,” a guaranteed laugh-getter wherein mild-mannered characters indulge an aggressive or romantic fantasy — such as attacking the boss or kissing the girl — only to snap back to reality the moment things start to get interesting.
Rather than clearly indicating each of Walter’s daydreams at the outset, Stiller allows the poor guy to drift seamlessly into his hallucinations, while slowly pumping more excitement into his daily routine over the course of the film. Early on, it’s pretty easy to tell when a wall of the Life building crumbles away to reveal Walter as a rugged mountain climber, professing his love for Cheryl via “poetry falcon.” However, by the time Walter finds himself thrashing in sub-zero seas, screaming as the porpoise fins close in around him, auds can scarcely distinguish where fantasy ends and reality begins.
While there’s something wonderfully relatable about a moth who dreams of being a butterfly, Stiller seems curiously reluctant to let himself appear as drab as the nebbish demands. In Thurber’s writing, his proxies were typically ill at ease, absent-minded and hen-pecked by dominant wives (on that front, none can top Henry Fonda’s turn in “The Male Animal”), but there’s virtually no trace of that personality to be found here. A gray coat does not a wallflower make, and Stiller passes up a perfectly good opportunity to let Walter’s mother (Shirley MacLaine) and sister (Kathryn Hahn) dominate his character.
Apart from Walter’s daydreams and a running series of customer-service calls to the eHarmony online dating service (where Patton Oswalt lends amusing support), Conrad’s script downplays the comedy in favor of a mellow existential crisis of the sort Cameron Crowe characters routinely suffer — not a shock coming from the sentimentalist responsible for “The Weather Man” and “The Pursuit of Happyness.” Though Stiller has proven he can be much funnier (a “Benjamin Button”-inspired reverse-aging fantasy suggests what might have been, reflecting the uproarious sensibility of his long-gone TV sketch series), the emotional dimension ultimately makes the film feel more substantial.
So does location shooting that lets Walter’s world travels — to Greenland, Iceland and Noshaq mountain, Afghanistan — trump his earlier fantasies, while providing backdrops that still look relatively exotic to seen-it-all auds. From a technical perspective, this is Stiller’s slickest pic yet, demonstrating creative widescreen framing and an inspired blend of dramatic score and recent pop tunes throughout. While the confusing mix of genres and ideas might throw first-wave auds for a loop, the approach is timeless enough to hold up. Who knows? In 20 years, the death of Life might seem less outdated, and Walter’s awakening could be as profound as he imagines.