NYFF: Ben Stiller Dreams Big with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Ben Stiller earnestly directs and even more earnestly stars as the iconic introvert Walter.
1947's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a musical-comedy vehicle for Danny Kaye, barely resembles the satirical 1939 short story by the great American humorist James Thurber (who was opposed to the adaptation, and allegedly offered ten grand to producer Samuel Goldwyn if he scrapped his plans). Neither of those versions has anything in common with this, the latest yearning carpe-diem fantasy about the milquetoast daydreamer with a secret life. Ben Stiller earnestly directs and even more earnestly stars as the iconic introvert Walter, a plain and lonely guy who zones out into implausibly lionhearted delusions, slickly actualized through majestic panoramas, dense color palettes and absurdist CGI fabulism.
As the dutiful yet outmoded "negative asset manager" in the photo department of the soon-folding Life magazine, Walter is a virtually invisible drone, too timid to talk to his underwritten office crush (Kristen Wiig) or stand up to a villainously bearded new manager (Adam Scott) in charge of downsizing. In his overactive imagination, Walter becomes a rugged Don Juan who woos by "poetry falcon" and exacts city-destroying revenge on his condescending boss as if he were one of The Avengers. But it's only when the final print issue's cover image goes missing that he feels tasked to literally leap out of his comfort zone (into icy, shark-infested waters!) and track down the gonzo superstar photographer (a perfectly calibrated Sean Penn) by way of exotic globetrotting.
What would inspire a man of near-crippling passivity to leave his 16-year job, suddenly fly to Greenland, jump out of helicopters, skateboard towards an erupting volcano, or scale the Upper Himalayas? Screenwriter Steven Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness) doesn't make a convincing case for the Bear Grylls transformation, and the dramatic stakes—aside from romantic rejection or losing a job—are speed bumps ex machina at worst. Ultimately, the story washes over as mildly, delightfully and forgettably as an Apple commercial, which might hit the spot for audiences whose heartstrings swell for get-up-and-go montages soundtracked by Arcade Fire and other anthemic indie rock that sounds like Arcade Fire.
Furthermore, as Walter shifts from dreaming to actualizing, the flight-of-fancy interludes that comically punctuated his melancholic existence during the film's first half evaporate, which is all that remained of Thurber's beloved character. Not that the expensive effects deepened the resonance; in fact, one disturbingly funny visual reference to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in which Walter pours his heart out as an aging man-baby is telling of the film's epic aesthetic ambitions and emotionally distancing flaws. Across the board, the cast has charm to burn (with a shout-out to Icelandic actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who steals it as a drunken helicopter pilot with a passion for karaoke), but without that reality-breaking gimmick, the so-called adventure becomes as banal as the Walter we first meet.
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