Ah, Hollywood — who else could take a lean, two-page short story and turn it into a bloated $90-million mega-production?
Author James Thurber’s short about a timid, henpecked husband who escapes into adventure-packed daydreams first appeared in a 1939 issue of The New Yorker magazine, and for such a slight piece, it has certainly cemented its place in the cultural lexicon. “Mittyesque” is a term used to refer to any sort of person who imagines themselves as far more accomplished than they actually are, but that kind of misses the point of the story, identifying fantasies as self-deceit where Thurber clearly saw them as a kind of self-defense mechanism.
There was a popular 1947 movie adaptation with Danny Kaye in the lead, but for my money, Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” features the most satisfyingly Mittyesque anti-hero to date. Gilliam took the daydreamer of Thurber’s tale and imagined him in George Orwell’s “1984,” where escape from reality also meant turning a blind eye to the horrors right before you.
Ben Stiller, who directs and acts in this new movie adaptation, does nothing so bold, giving us a movie as milquetoast as Mitty himself. It’s a feelgood parable that encourages doing instead of imagining, traveling across continents instead of being stuck in a basement cubicle, but it builds to a conclusion so predictable and mawkish that it has no business telling people to be adventurous with their lives.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” starts promisingly: Walter (Stiller), a shy middle-aged nebbish, is hunched over his laptop, agonising over whether or not to send a “wink” to a co-worker named Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), who is registered on the same online dating site. When he finally manages to summon up the courage to click on it, he gets — appropriately enough — an error.
When Mitty goes into work — at Life magazine, where he’s a photo archives supervisor — he finds out the company has been bought out and that his new boss, Hendricks (Adam Scott), is an obnoxious yuppie with a hipster beard who’s not fond of Mitty’s penchant for zoning out while people are talking to him.
Hendricks asks Mitty to hand over a photo from famous photo-journalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) to grace Life’s final cover. Problem is that the photo is missing and Mitty can’t find it or locate Sean, prompting a trip that takes him from Iceland to Afghanistan, where he will fight sharks, jump out of helicopters, barter with warlords, outrun lava and otherwise do incredible stuff that is, like, way cooler than daydreaming.
Most of this is played as light comedy, with Stiller doing a couple of amusing riffs on Mitty’s daydream fantasies. He also gets some mileage out the supporting cast, with Olafur Darri Olafsson’s drunken helicopter pilot and Scott’s arrogant suit adding some laughs. Crucially, though, Stiller’s chemistry with Wiig is tepid at best, underplayed to a fault, and a late scene between them meant to express the long-awaited rush of true love crackles with all the passion of a 20-year-married couple deciding who should do the laundry.
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