Imagine, if you will, that in the next James Bond movie, Bond were to be reconceived as a married man with a desk job, who only imagines himself saving the world. You’d probably throw things at the screen, and preemptively declare it the worst film ever made (though I daresay Alan Moore could get a pretty decent comic book out of the premise). But reverse the equation, and you come close to what Ben Stiller has done to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. James Thurber’s Mitty was defined primarily by (a) his daydreams of adventure that contrasted with his mundane life and (b) being married. True, the 1947 Danny Kaye film ultimately gave him an actual adventure, but it at least maintained the notion of a split identity between the dull and the derring-do. Stiller the director just can’t seem to stand not having Stiller the actor be an unabashed hero.
That’s not to necessarily say there isn’t room for a radically new take on Mitty, though Thurber would surely decry such a thing were he still with us (he wasn’t even a fan of the Kaye version). But when you start your story like the real deal and switch it out, it’s like going to Gordon Ransay’s restaurant and being told your second course will be a Big Mac. More’s the shame: the visual aesthetic is lovely, with career-best work from cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (Bridget Jones’ Diary) and imaginative production design by Jeff Mann (Transformers). Stiller seems to be going for that Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman vibe, but in the end his instincts are far too commercial to truly roll with the weirdness he occasionally touches upon.
Stiller’s Mitty works in the photo department at Life magazine, which makes “Secret Life” into a groaningly obvious pun, and means that if you’re assuming this to be in real time, this is a story that happened in 2007, right around the printing of the last issue. Everything’s about to be downsized by a team of youngish smart alecs who all come across like “alternative” stand-up comics in stunt casting; in charge of them is Ted (Adam Scott), whose ridiculous beard and smarmy manner instantly rub Mitty wrong. In one early flight of fantasy, Mitty imagines the two of them in an epic action-movie style chase scene through New York traffic in pursuit of a Stretch Armstrong doll. This is not bad stuff so far – there would seem to be plenty of room to comment upon cinema as a collective waking daydream, and on the way our daydreams filter less through the static print images in magazines of yesteryear than the cliches of big-budget CG entertainments.
Things start to derail, though, when Mitty, who cannot find the intended cover photo for the final issue of Life, decides – in part thanks to a growing desire to impress his office crush Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) – to track down the photographer, a globe-trotting adventurer named Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). O’Connell was last heard from in Greenland, and so non-adventurous Walter promptly goes there.
At first, the line between fantasy and reality maintains, as a surreal bar fight and a vision of Wiig singing David Bowie tunes seem like they could be all in his head. There are even some surprising coincidences, and a brief hint that there might be a Tyler Durdenish connection between Mitty and O’Connell (it’s quickly dropped). Alas, it soon becomes pretty straightforwardly clear that this is reality, and Mitty is suddenly operating on the level of an action hero – in an attempt to give us some grounding for this, we’re told he used to be a mohawk-sporting skateboarding champion, but had to quit and get a job when his father died. He’s not a regular guy dreaming of being exciting – he’s a formerly exciting kid who was forced to become boring. This is a pretty significant, fundamental change.
Stiller has frequently come of as narcissistic onscreen – he either revels in it and plays it broadly, as in Dodgeball or Zoolander, or plays the nice-guy nerd who is most clearly the only sane person onscreen. In real life, Stiller is a smallish guy who works out like a fiend – his physique, occasionally glimpsed on film, is pretty well sculpted, and it’s like he can’t resist winking to the audience sometimes as if to say, “Look, I’m playing a nerd, but we all know I’m not, right? I’m more awesome than that.”
And that’s fair enough…but it’s not Walter Mitty. The original story ends with Mitty imagining himself facing a firing squad…I won’t tell you how this one ends, but as you can probably guess by now, it ain’t that.
If the movie were retitled Ben Stiller Is Secretly Way More Awesome Than You, I’d probably have less of an issue. Mitty’s not even the most interesting character in the film – Penn’s action photographer would be a much more compelling guy to globetrot with, and the actor seems at his most relaxed in ages inhabiting the role. Wiig is sweetly nice, and a refreshingly real, somewhat age-appropriate beauty for Mitty to woo. And Patton Oswalt’s customer service representative for a dating site could easily have his own movie, and I’d watch it – after Young Adult, I know he can make that kind of mundaneness fascinating. Hell, he’d have been the perfect Mitty, really – what was Big Fan if not a rehearsal for something more like this?
By my count, Stiller has now directed exactly one movie I’ve liked without reservation – Tropic Thunder, in which he actually let his costars steal the show. The rest – The Cable Guy, Reality Bites, Zoolander et al – tend to start off with great ideas and blow it by the end. Ironically, that’s more like something the actual Walter Mitty would do than anything in this movie.