I wasn’t holding out much hope for this one. Like anyone with a brain and a distinct fear of transforming from an adventurous roustabout into an office drone, I have a deep appreciation for the work of James Thurber (not to mention Danny Kaye, who starred in the original adaptation), and when the trailer hit, it looked like Ben Stiller’s take would be much more of a saga instead of a few simple flights from banality.
And while Stiller’s Walter Mitty departs halfway from flights of fancy, the first half is a delight. Mitty is a negative assets manager at Life Magazine – negative assets as in he’s the guy who handles photo negatives, and Life Magazine as in the periodical that Gestapo agents read when they’re tailing Indiana Jones and which, specifically in this flick, is in the process of becoming a purely online publication.
Mitty’s tasked with developing the final cover’s image, which has been misplaced, and which causes the sleazy consultant handling the transition (Adam Scott, in a wickedly dorky beard) to breathe stertorously down his neck.
In addition to that, Mitty’s currently engaged in setting up his eHarmony profile despite having gone nowhere and done nothing, diminishing his chances of attracting the pretty new hire (Kirsten Wiig). Helping him is Todd (a voice that may be recognizable, but whose identity is one of the best reveals, jokes, and sequences in the film), an overly dedicated eHarmony assistant.
The film has a fantastic start, as all the major performers – Stiller, Wiig, and Scott – come from the background of exploiting social awkwardness and revel in creating a facade of meekness in their characters, a meekness that barely veils the passions behind it. Scott in particular, is so good at each little passive-aggressive dig (I especially liked the progression of how he says “guy”: first cloying, then annoyed, then furious). And, thankfully, not all of Mitty’s daydreams are treated as immature revenge fantasies or love-struck dalliances. One sequence in particular gets very creative as Stiller and Scott battle over a Stretch Armstrong doll throughout the streets of New York, using the roads as skis and whatever else as improvised weapons.
Had the movie stayed at the Life offices, had it stuck to its initial burst of creativity and subtle character moments The Secret Life of Walter Mitty would be a marvelous underdog, but halfway through, when Mitty decides to track down the reclusive photographer whose photo he can’t find, the fantasies stop, and the Secret Life becomes the real life.
Granted the second half is very gorgeous, with Stiller in picturesque Iceland and even not-so-picturesque Greenland and really lovely Afghanistan, but the imagination and sense of wonder yields to perfunctory writing. The characters Mitty meets aren’t very interesting, and the romantic subplot offers nothing innovative. The only relief is the occasional check-up from Todd at eHarmony (though it does have a great payoff), but the contributions of Wiig and Scott are noticeably missed. Even the mystery of the photo can be deduced in only a handful of minutes after its revealed as a plot point.
But Walter Mitty is not a bad movie; actually, it’s a pretty good one. And while the nicer, simpler pleasures are extinguished early on, the movie maintains a warm glow; I only wish Walter Mitty could have a few more secrets.