Ben Stiller’s version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a lot like a Christmas fruitcake. It is heavily packed with all kinds of strange and goofy stuff, the sugar content might do you in and it will probably last forever. But, for people who like their movie desserts on the sweet side, actor-director Stiller has whipped up just the right holiday confection.
That is because The Secret Life of Walter Mitty really is charming. Its heart is in the right place, even if its head is a little off-kilter. And Stiller tries desperately to please audiences with the romantic undercurrents, with Kristen Wiig as the object of his affections. She is good, and Stiller’s own performance is better than his direction.
The title and central premise comes from the 1939 short story by author James Thurber. His original has been cited as a masterpiece of American literature. It chronicles five separate daydreams that the protagonist, humble Walter Mitty, enjoys as a way of spicing up his otherwise humdrum life.
Thurber’s story was adapted into a Hollywood movie once before, in 1947 by producer Samuel Goldwyn and director Norman Z. McLeod. The movie starred Danny Kaye. Thurber reportedly disapproved of the drastic changes to his story, which were designed to showcase Kaye and not to honour Thurber’s creativity.
I am not sure what Thurber, who died in 1961, would think of what Stiller’s screenwriter did now. I suspect he would have been annoyed once again. Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness, The Weather Man) also made drastic changes. Other than the fact that Walter Mitty is a daydreamer, there is little connection to the original short story.
So the Stiller movie has to stand on its own wobbly legs. Stiller’s Walter Mitty is a contemporary daydreamer who now works in the stills archives of Life magazine, a legend of photojournalism. This is just at the point when the magazine has been sold and is in danger of transitioning from print to online-only (which really did happen to Life in 2007).
The new owners are targeting people for dismissal. Mitty, who suddenly falls into his daydream trance in the middle of conversations, stands out for all the wrong reasons. His job is an anachronism. But he is also charged with producing the cover photo for what will become the last print version of the magazine. The trouble is Mitty can’t locate the image that the magazine’s ace photographer (played by Sean Penn) sent him for this purpose.
Mitty cannot find the world-travelling photographer, either. For the first time in his life, this timid, unassertive mama’s boy has to go out in the world, looking for Penn. What happens next — including an adventure outrunning an exploding volcano in Iceland — is the thrill of a lifetime.
Some of the visuals Stiller & company captured on location in Iceland are stunning, especially when combined with the special effects. Some of the whimsy of the film — the fruit in the fruitcake — is giddy and even delicious. While there are illogical moments — especially involving the guru-like character played by Penn — there are other passages of the movie that do make some sense.
In the end, you may not learn much about anything, but Stiller does serve up the sweets that some people crave for the Christmas holidays.