A cinematic Hallmark card about the triumph of the human spirit, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty finds Ben Stiller courting Oscar-season accolades through a tale that’s all schmaltz, no substance. Loosely adapting the James Thurber short story that was previously filmed as a 1947 Danny Kaye vehicle, Stiller goes slushy for his saga of Walter (Stiller), an office drone whose dull, drab life is epitomized by opening images of him balancing his checkbook in a claustrophobic apartment kitchen. Walter works at Life magazine as a “negative asset manager,” a title that’s in tune with his blank, empty existence, from which he periodically flees courtesy of daydreams in which he imagines himself charming co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) by leaping off of train platforms to save her three-legged puppy from a burning building, or wooing her as a dashing Arctic stud.
To make Walter’s day-to-day life even drearier (and his loony reveries even more necessary), Life is about to be downsized into an online-only publication, a transition supervised by a corporate cretin, Ted (Adam Scott), whose villainy is made plain by his comically malevolent beard. Walter Mitty, however, has nothing serious to say about this media-world evolution; it’s merely a backdrop for Walter’s spiritual awakening via a search for The Meaning of Life. That begins once he loses the picture that was to grace the last issue’s cover (it reportedly conveys “the quintessence of life”). Driven by his desire to impress Cheryl and inspired by Life’s motto (“To see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to…”), he endeavors to find legendary rough-riding shutterbug Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), who roams the wild living out the very types of adventures Walter craves, and whom Walter hopes still has the precious photo.
Walter Mitty’s early going has the preciousness of a too-cute Dilbert cartoon, with Walter cinematographically marginalized in a frame overflowing with imposing buildings, crisscrossing streets, and bustling crowds. Stiller’s visual storytelling is as obvious as his narrative, which soon also concerns a running thread in which, incapable of using eHarmony to “wink” at Cheryl, he strikes up a friendship with one of the site’s tech-support agents (Patton Oswalt), who regularly calls Walter during his ensuing global odyssey to find Sean. Oswalt’s phone rep is Walter’s supportive virtual sidekick on a quest to transform himself from everyman to superman—a process that eventually succeeds when, in person, Oswalt’s admiring schlub tells Walter that he resembles a cross between Indiana Jones and the lead singer from the Strokes.
Before such heroic self-actualization can occur, however, Walter must first go from fantasy fighting with Ted over a Stretch Armstrong doll during a video game-ish race through midtown Manhattan, to literally battling beasts and the elements like a rugged, invincible he-man. From skirmishes with sharks off the coast of Greenland, to flights from erupting volcanoes in Iceland, to scaling mountains in Afghanistan, Walter soon changes into the man of his imagination—which is to say, a cartoon. And so, too, does Walter Mitty thus become not a portrait of a flawed individual struggling for self-improvement and transcendence, but merely a cornball carpe diem-ish fable of prevailing over any and all obstacles through positive thinking and a can-do attitude.
Stiller’s aesthetics blend overly manicured imagery with soaring rock songs that underlines every emotion, lest the film’s corporate logo-driven message-making didn’t get the point across clearly enough. As befitting Stiller’s fondness for product placement, not only does Life magazine’s motto factor into the material’s themes, but so does Chase bank, its name spied as Walter contemplates pursuing Cheryl, and Papa John’s, which ties into Walter’s enduring sadness over his father’s death. The pizza chain’s symbolic import is outright articulated to Walter by his mom (Shirley MacLaine), whose own participation is relegated to a piano-related subplot designed to provide the overstuffed action with further complications that can be easily resolved in a climax of everything-ties-together harmony.
Walter Mitty, alas, strikes only dissonant chords, regardless of whether it’s indulging in gooey sentimentality or groan-worthy humor such as an Icelandic man screaming “Erection!” instead of “Eruption!” While Walter and Cheryl are fleshed out with token details (he has daddy issues and used to be a great skateboarder; she has an estranged ex and a son who, wouldn’t you know, loves to skateboard!), they’re both as one-dimensional as the rest of their kooky friends and enemies. Either good or evil, but never, ever complicated, the characters represent things without once seeming the least bit like actual, put-upon people striving for personal and professional liberation. As when Wiig bluntly explains the meaning of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”—a song repeatedly used to ridicule spacey Walter—by stating that it’s “about courage, and going into the unknown,” they’re just stick-figure mouthpieces for this escapist fantasy’s inescapable pap.