NYFF Review: 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'

Ostensibly a modern-to-the-minute adaptation of James Thurber’s indelible short story, Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is kind of like if Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” were remade as an 114-minute Super Bowl commercial. A visually playful enlightenment drama that’s so preoccupied with inspiring its audience that it never bothers articulating a coherent message to inspire them with, Stiller’s film so consistently undercooks its cheap Hallmark sentiments that none of these pseudo-rousing peans to the inherent wonder of being alive ever congeal into anything meaningful.

Originally the tale of an unhappily married dreamer stuck in a ho-hum existence, “Walter Mitty” has been repurposed as a contemporary romantic fable about an unhappily single daydreamer who works as a “Negative Assets Manager” at LIFE Magazine. Walter (Stiller) lives in a Harlem apartment with no art on the walls and seems incapable of any recognizable human emotion save for mild frustration and simmering self-pity – wearing a colorless wardrobe and an immovably blank look on his face, he isn’t ordinary so much as he is autistically inexpressive (it’s not enough that he has a fantastical inner life, he must also have an aggressively standard outer life). We first meet our reserved hero, brimming with unrealized potential, as he fires up his new E-Harmony account and agonizes over whether or not to “wink” at his co-worker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig, so subdued as the bland love interest that she’s practically somnambulant).

This droll prologue anticipates a movie that’s curiously obsessed with the intersection between business models and human lives, Steven Conrad’s script bending over backwards to forgive corporate culture by revealing its underlying personhood. “Walter Mitty” repeatedly grafts personhood onto products, beginning with the opening credits sequence in which our hero forms a relationship with a concerned E-Harmony employee named Todd (a disembodied Patton Oswalt). Later on, Papa John’s will be used as a conduit for Mitty to convey how his life changed in the wake of his father’s death, Air Greenland will take to the skies as the official airline of realizing your fantastical destiny, and Cinnabon will be contrived into the plot as the sugary source of all human happiness.

On the other hand, LIFE begins to die the moment we see Walter arrive at work. Faintly echoing the magazine’s actual collapse in 2000, the film opens with the journalistic institution beginning to transition from print to digital, resulting in a brutal series of layoffs overseen by a ghoulish HR stooge named Ted (Adam Scott, whose usually hilarious douchebag schtick is grating and out of place, here). Weeping crocodile tears for the analog world in our wake, “Walter Mitty” is a movie about THE WAY WE LIVE NOW, and you can feel it becoming less relevant with every passing scene. Walter, who’s handled all of the magazine’s negatives for 16 years, receives a batch of shots from renowned photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), one of which is destined to be the cover image for the final issue. The problem is that the picture, which supposedly contains the “quintessence of life”, is missing from the sheet that Sean delivered. Under threat of being fired, Walter is tasked with locating the elusive, globe-hopping photographer and retrieving the mythical frame. His journey takes him to Greenland, Yemen, and every conceivable corner of his overactive imagination as he jumps out of helicopters and clumsily stumbles over metaphors in an attempt to realize that – to quote the press notes – “a life discovered is better than a life imagined.”

Never mind that the sentiment completely dismisses the point of Thurber’s (very) short story and feels like a big f**k you to storytellers in general, Stiller’s film is naive and desperately lacking nuance in its own right. The message that even the most beautiful dreams are useless if they’re never realized is problematically broad as it is, but “Walter Mitty” distills cheap sentiment into utter meaninglessness by conflating “living” with “engaging in implausibly reckless behavior.” Allowing a drunk helicopter pilot to fly him into the heart of a storm brewing above the Arctic Ocean, long-boarding towards an erupting volcano, eating a Cinnabon – If Sean O’Connell is a Herzogian caricature, Walter Mitty is Timothy Treadwell, a sweet idiot whose increasingly distorted view of the world around him is more dangerous than it is endearing.

While the film’s visual whimsy is clever and impressively conceived (it’s clear that Stiller could have a second career directing a wide variety of studio fare if not for his irrepressible wackiness), the low-concept quirks tend to work best, and watching a text message formed by the shifting earth of an Icelandic rockslide is cringe-inducing proof that “Walter Mitty” is ironically a victim of its own imagination. Though a few vintage Stiller moments help the film retain a unique off-kilter energy (a weird, long riff on Benjamin Button is almost worth the price of admission in and of itself), the relentless assault of gently ironic sight gags helps reduce one of the great American short stories into a “Garden State” for middle-aged office drones – while not as manic as Zach Braff’s divisive debut, Stiller’s film is even more pleased with its own perspective, its final moments realizing the true potential of its avatar-like protagonist as a means of arrogantly gifting the audience with their own specialness.

For all of its scope and bombast, “Walter Mitty” is just another story of an ordinary man learning to appreciate the world around him, a metamorphosis that Stiller more believably and more enjoyably tackled in the modest 2004 rom-com “Along Came Polly”. Palpably well-intentioned, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is nevertheless phony to the core – failing to articulate why it’s urgent that we escape from our fantasies, the unintended takeaway from this soft spectacle is that we don’t need to dream less, we just need to dream better.

SCORE: 4.8 / 10

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" will be released in theaters on Christmas Day.

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