There’s a good movie somewhere in Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but he hasn’t quite delivered it. Based on James Thurber’s 1939 New Yorker short story and subsequent 1947 screen adaptation starring Danny Kaye, Stiller has taken a screenplay stuck in decades of Hollywood development and fashioned a glossy, good looking and well-acted picture about an everyman corporate drone who learns to live and love. In a picture that has several merits, it ultimately is about picaresque set pieces at the expense of emotional cohesion. It’s a near miss, but not without pleasures.
Forty-something Walter Mitty (Stiller) is a mild-mannered, milquetoast negative processor at Manhattan’s LIFE magazine headquarters. Timid to a fault, Walter perpetually imagines adventurous scenarios where he becomes an alpha-male crusader who wins the hand of lovely office mate Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), who in reality barely knows he exists, though Walter does spend evenings reviewing her profile on eHarmony, barely able to summon the nerve to send her a nudge.
When LIFE undergoes a merger and the last issue is announced by the smarmy, condescending company man (Adam Scott, a bit broad) in charge, Walter is tasked with processing the cover photo—shot by the magazine’s longtime, maverick photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), a globetrotting icon and everything Walter wishes he could be. When that negative turns up missing, Walter goes in search of O’Connell, a travelogue that will change his life.
So far, so good, and Stiller and Wiig have a tangible chemistry that is quite sweet—if the movie had been more about them and they’d had more time together onscreen, it might have been more affecting. But once Walter begins his trek around the world—a trip that will take him to Greenland, Iceland and ultimately to the mountains of Afghanistan, his lifelong fantasies of exploration becoming realities—the character and budding friendship become muddled, leaving us with a rote and connect-the-dots “coming out” story arc that feels more about the scenery and cinematography (both gorgeous) than about the man. Ironically, the more Walter experiences the real world around him and opens up to life, the more detached the film becomes.
Shirley MacLaine lends able support as Walter’s wise mother, imparting critical information right on cue, and Sean Penn shows up for a single, very effective scene near the end of the film. Both appearances indicate a sum-of-its-parts conundrum for this well-meaning but only sporadically engaging movie, one that has intermittent pleasures but lacks a real narrative or thematic coherence.
Stiller and Wiig are likable together, and though their relationship is never fully explored, the genuine innocence of their budding attraction is the film’s most appealing dimension; the story suffers when Walter is off gallivanting and Cheryl is sidelined.
Certainly The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’s message of stepping up to the plate and learning to experience and to live is a good one, but there is something light as air about this picture—a synthetic artifice—that takes the heart out of it all, good as Stiller and Wiig may be.
2 1/2 stars.