Dreamed a dream – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty review

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

By Simon Miraudo
December 17, 2013

“We’re going through!” is how James Thurber’s beloved short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, begins. Producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr. was possibly stirred by that same declaration in his twenty-year-long battle to bring it back to the big screen. Ron Howard, Chuck Russell, Steven Spielberg, Mark Waters, and Gore Verbinski had all been, at one time or another, attached to direct a new adaptation. (The first take – starring Danny Kaye – hit cinemas in 1947, and was produced by Samuel Goldwyn Sr., of course). Their attempts failed, for reasons not interesting enough to recount here. So, in 2013, the task rests in the reliable – if not entirely expected – hands of actor Ben Stiller, who has steadily built up his directorial CV with challenging comedies The Cable Guy and Tropic Thunder, not to mention the surreal Zoolander and his debut feature, the oh-so-1994 Reality Bites.

Fans of Thurber’s original short story will find this heavily extrapolated and starry-eyed adaptation – credited to screenwriter Steve Conrad – grossly unfamiliar. Whereas his tale took place over a mundane afternoon, during which daydreamer Walter imagined a more eventful life away from his nagging wife, the movie is an audacious blockbuster spanning weeks and continents. Stiller plays this version of Mitty, a bored photo developer at Life magazine who finally embraces his adventurous spirit and embarks on a journey across the world to locate a missing negative. In the one true improvement over the source material, he does so not to escape his pesky bride but to impress the object of his affection, sweet Cheryl Melhoff (the effortless appealing comedienne Kristen Wiig).

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

To Stiller and Conrad’s credit, their project differs from the Walter Mittys that have come before it so significantly, we can’t really accuse it of being much of a remake at all. It’s its own thing. Rather than ever really recalling Thurber’s rapier wit (or even the vicious, incisive satire of Tropic Thunder), it aims for broader, physical comedy, and it’s often broadly, physically funny. (The Greenlandic sight gags are pretty good. Like, The Naked Gun good.) Just don’t expect any comic creation as barbed or brilliant as Robert Downey Jr.‘s Kirk Lazarus, the devoted Aussie actor from Thunder who bleached his skin black to portray a grotesquely stereotyped African American soldier. This flick is a little, well, nicer.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is watchable, likable, beautiful, and easily digestible. I can imagine it becoming a favourite of many undiscerning children and uncynical adults. Sadly, I probably fall into the category of cynical child. When Walter skateboards through the Icelandic hills, or climbs the Himalayan mountainside, the picture feels like a sentimental Nikon advertisement: gorgeous to behold and undeniably a corporate exercise that capitalises on generic, impossible platitudes. (“Hey, blow your life savings on travel, and play soccer with Sherpas! Now that’s a life worth living.”) All that José González on the soundtrack doesn’t make it feel any less like an ad either. I was even bugged by the fact the characters keep referring to David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ as ‘Major Tom’ – a different song entirely!

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Stiller’s a bit of a non-presence in the lead, perhaps necessary for an absent-minded, Mittyesque character, and also perhaps the result of his preoccupation with the complicated production. Thank goodness then for Wiig, as well as hilarious supporting performers Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, and Patton Oswalt. Scott dons a ridiculous beard as Ted Hendricks, the empty suit responsible for laying off Life employees, and it so fun to see him depict such an unrepentant jerk once again. (Before Parks and Recreation, this was his stock in trade.) Hahn is Walter’s flighty sister, and Oswalt voices an eHarmony employee who regularly checks in on our hero to see if he’s done anything notable to flesh out his otherwise empty profile. They’re great.

And then there’s Shirley MacLaine as Mother Mitty, and Sean Penn (who, during Tropic Thunder, was mocked mercilessly for going “full retard” in I Am Sam) as Sean O’Connell, the mysterious photojournalist Walter’s trying to hunt down. They’re lovely too in far smaller roles. That missing negative of O’Connell’s supposedly captures the “quintessence” of Life magazine, and the reveal of the image at the film’s close is a genuinely moving moment. The same goes for almost every shared scene with Stiller and Wiig. Sometimes, the heart of this picture is undeniable, and even I, the cynical child, was touched. Curse that Stiller. Just when you think we have the limits of his talents pegged, he proves he’s inscrutable to the last.

3.5/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s archive of reviews.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty arrives in Australian cinemas December 26, 2013.

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