In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller plays a man who can’t stop himself from indulging his flights of fancy. If only the movie were as untethered from reality. The central problem with this amiable but slight adventure, directed by Stiller from a script by Steve Conrad and a short story by James Thurber, is its unwillingness to be as whimsical as it clearly wants to be. Aside from an unexpected homage to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Walter Mitty’s fantasies are largely earthbound, and the movie surrounding them is watchable but rarely surprising.
The title character is a charmless slip of a man, perpetually clutching his briefcase like a life preserver. He struggles to hold a conversation for more than a few seconds, and he’s too shy to confront his burgeoning feelings for his comely co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig). He deals with the world by retreating into his shell, imagining an alternate universe in which he’s a hero, a Casanova, an aggressor and an adventurer, only to be jolted back to reality by the encroaching return of his banal conversation. Tasked with circling the globe to recover the missing cover photograph for the final issue of Life magazine, Walter learns that he’s much healthier when he allows his fantasies to bleed into his real life.
Stiller’s assured direction keeps the movie watchable, and the colorful supporting cast includes fun appearances from Adam Scott, Patton Oswalt, Sean Penn, Shirley MacLaine and Kathryn Hahn. In her all-too-brief appearances, Wiig proves a likable presence even with her comedic eccentricities stripped away. But Stiller’s performance is curious, arguably subtle by design but remote when it should be revelatory. The script thankfully doesn’t shoehorn a leaden flashback sequence explaining Walter’s reticence, but Stiller falls short of filling the gaps. The movie reflects its star/director’s uncertainty: it has lovely moments of visual grandeur and brief snippets of fine comedy, but for the most part, it’s content to amble along as directionless as its central character.
Thematically, Stiller is concerned with the effects of photography and digital technology on our relationship with the world, but the story doesn’t push these themes in interesting directions. It’s easy to see what Stiller is trying to say from the sharply observed opening sequence. The disappointment is that the movie doesn’t have enough going on in the margins to justify this obvious narrative through-line. The backdrop of Life magazine is a thuddingly obvious nod to the movie’s grander notions of adventure and satisfaction, and the tepid romance proceeds dutifully to the most obvious conclusion.
At its best, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty conjures a stirring blend of the real and the fantastical, as with a powerful sequence in which Walter narrowly escapes death by shark bite. The wide shots of the tiny Walter shuffling across the Icelandic countryside and shambling up a frigid mountain are impressive, and a mid-movie skateboard ride is thrilling. But these fleeting moments of transcendence can’t make up for the emptiness at the movie’s core. Perhaps the screenplay could have used another polish. Or perhaps the movie needed to heed the advice of the Life slogan, oft-repeated for dramatic effect:
“To see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to, to draw closer, to see and be amazed – that is the purpose of Life.”
To see that slogan fully realized, look elsewhere.