There’s a good reason why James Thurber’s short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has endured since its publication in The New Yorker in 1939: In its evocation of an utterly ordinary man retreating into his own private fantasies as an escape from numbing reality, Thurber hit upon a concept as simple as it is profoundly universal. It’s also an idea ripe for cinematic expansion, especially if you view cinema the way Ingmar Bergman once characterized the films of Andrei Tarkovsky: “When film is not a document, it is dream.”
For Ben Stiller, apparently, Thurber’s classic story is grist not for a sympathetic exploration of the universal human desires to dream and live, but to craft what eventually amounts to a totem to his own vanity. How else to explain its increasingly exasperating collapse into scene after scene that extols Mitty’s, and by extension Stiller’s own, heroic goodness?
For about an hour, though, I was willing to try to take Stiller’s Walter Mitty as seriously as he clearly wanted us to. In fact, much of the first half-hour generates something of a sketch-comedy vibe, with Thurber’s weaving-in-and-out-of-daydreams structure serving as a springboard for Stiller to indulge in fantasies that double as parodies of action movies, romantic melodramas, and even an out-of-nowhere spoof of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. All of this, of course, contrasts with Mitty’s reality, which is played for the kind of pitiable awkwardness that’s been Stiller’s stock in trade for much of his acting career.
Screenwriter Steve Conrad’s take on the Thurber story is twofold. He aims for topical relevance by updating the fairly abstract source material to the present; this manifests itself not only in jokes about online dating, social media, and the digital age in general, but also in his decision to set much of this version at Life magazine in the midst of a Dow Jones-style corporate takeover that’s decided to shut down its print operation, thus threatening Mitty’s 16-year employment as a “negative assets manager.” Most importantly, however, and following in the footsteps of the 1947 Danny Kaye-led film adaptation of the story, Conrad turns Walter Mitty into the kind of pure wish-fulfillment saga that Thurber pointedly avoided, taking the previous hopeless daydreamer out of his comfort zone and diving him into a globe-trotting adventure, all in the service of looking for a crucial photographic negative missing from the most recent roll of veteran photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), a figure who stands as a kind of idol to Mitty for his uncompromising, defiantly analog ways (he doesn’t even bother to have a cellphone as he travels the world taking photographs).
The movie’s message is obvious early on: This Walter Mitty is a journey of self-actualization in which its titular character casts off the shackles of his nondescript existence and finally starts living the life he only envisioned in his daydreams. Unfortunately, for all the thought Conrad put into the details of the world surrounding Mitty, he seems to have put less thought in giving Mitty himself much detail and backstory beyond his archetypal “shy man finally grows a pair” function. An impressive facility with a skateboard is one of a handful of vague hints of wilder youthful ambitions that got quashed when his father died at an early age; otherwise, Conrad’s Mitty remains as thin a creation as Thurber’s deliberately was—hardly an issue in the context of a short story, but a grave mistake when building a whole feature film that asks us to invest in his self-improvement as a human being.
But then, a more fully fleshed-out Mitty might have forced Stiller to actually try to play a character instead of using the premise as an opportunity to put himself on a pedestal. It’s fitting, actually, that Penn is in this film, playing the kind of world traveler with a thirst for life that he lionized in his 2007 based-on-real-events directorial effort Into the Wild. But while Stiller taps into a similar romanticized, idealistic spirit that animated Penn’s film, at least Penn didn’t cast himself as the adventurer he was lionizing. As Stiller’s wish-fulfillment adventure becomes ever more extravagant (he not only goes to Greenland and Iceland, but gets to go climb the Himalayas with sherpas in seeking out O’Connell), and the supporting characters, including Kristen Wiig’s token love interest Cheryl, shower Mitty/Stiller with ever more words of adulation for his selflessness, one can’t help but wonder after a while whether Stiller is really getting off on having his own ego stroked in the guise of making an inspirational movie about following your bliss. (Spoiler herein.) However admirable its life lessons are, by the time this Walter Mitty literally encases Stiller in black-and-white photographic amber, it’s enough to cast serious doubt on whatever crumbs of well-meaning sincerity one might have been willing to grant him in the beginning.
The New York Film Festival runs from September 27—October 13.