Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The (United States, 2013)December 24, 2013
One could make a compelling argument that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty does what a good remake should do: it takes the essential premise of the original and, while retaining some of the names and touchstones of its predecessor, moves in a new direction. Viewed from that standpoint, Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is both familiar and fresh. Fans of the 1947 classic won't feel marooned by a filmmaker with no affection for the original nor will they believe they're watching an inferior carbon copy. Unfortunately, where The Secret Life of Walter Mitty lets down its audience is with a flaccid narrative. It's hard to pinpoint the cause of the problem, but Walter's story never engages. His adventures seem perfunctory. The movie comes to life when stars Ben Stiller (who plays Walter) and Kristin Wiig (who plays his love interest, Cheryl) share the screen but it's less engrossing during the long globetrotting sequences that have Walter on the trail of hotshot photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn).
Is the underlying premise of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty too "innocent" for a 2013 film? The story is about a meek office worker who lives vicariously through the photographic negatives he processes at Life magazine. When a prized photo - the one designated for the cover of the final print issue of the magazine - is missing, Walter is forced to go on a real-life adventure to locate the photographer. Along the way, he finds himself and gains a new appreciation of life. Films of this sort may have worked well in a "simpler" era but this one could have difficulty finding an audience in a time when a defining social characteristic is cynicism. The only cynics in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty are the bad guys, like Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), the new boss who berates and belittles Walter before firing him.
The most enjoyable parts of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty are his fantasies, such as one in which he stands up to his boss in a way he never would in real life. The actual adventure arc, which takes up more than half the movie's running length and transports Walter to Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan, is more like a travelogue with a couple of action/adventure set pieces. The scenery is beautiful but the story seems to be spinning its wheels. The objective is to get Walter to experience life before he catches up to Sean but there are a lot of sequences when the movie seems to be stalling for time.
Ben Stiller, who chaperoned this movie out of development hell and all the way to the big screen, has the perfect "everyman" quality to play Walter. The only other big-name actor I could see in this role is Tom Hanks from about a decade ago. Kristen Wiig tones down some of her more annoying comedic mannerisms to present an attractive and appealing Cheryl. She and Stiller evidence perfect PG chemistry - sparks don't necessarily fly but one can imagine a great big heart with an arrow through it appearing the air above them. They're cute.
There are a couple of high profile actors in small roles - Shirley MacLean as Walter's mother and Sean Penn as the elusive photographer. Adam Scott is the stereotypical bottom line-oriented boss whose business-minded approach clashes with Walter's whimsical one. If there's one thing missing from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it's that Hendricks never gets a comeuppance. In fact, as the film moves toward its climax, he vanishes from the story. It's an odd choice and I'm not sure it works.
The word "old fashioned" can be used to describe The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; unfortunately, that's not necessarily the kind of description that will translate into box office success. This is a moderately enjoyable but largely forgettable confection. It's being marketed as a family film but young children with short attention spans will probably be bored. Stiller deserves credit for remaining true to the spirit of the original; unfortunately, he fails to recapture the magic and that makes the 2013 iteration of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty only fitfully satisfying.
Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The (United States, 2013)
Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Adam Scott, Shirley MacLean, Kathryn Hahn
Screenplay: Steve Conrad, based on the short story by James Thurber
Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh
Music: Theodore Shapiro
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox