‘Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ best left to fantasy
A two-star review of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” an unnecessary, updated film adaptation of James Thurber’s landmark short story.
Seattle Times movie critic
‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,’ with Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn, Patton Oswalt. Directed by Stiller, from a screenplay by Steven Conrad, based on the short story by James Thurber. 114 minutes. Rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence. Several theaters.
Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” has been in the works for years, and if you read the James Thurber short story it’s based on, you can understand why it would be a passion project. A mere five pages long, it’s a tiny pearl: a note-perfect portrait of a regular guy, going about his errands while being ordered around by his wife, who in his dream life is a hero fighter pilot, an acclaimed surgeon, a key witness in a splashy trial ... until he’s woken up to real life again.
Stiller’s movie, though, bears little relation to the story. That doesn’t necessarily doom the movie — the 1947 Danny Kaye version didn’t have much Thurber in it either — but in this case, there isn’t much reason for this “Walter Mitty” to exist. Here, he’s a regular guy (played by Stiller) who works in the photo department of Life magazine and dreams of a more exciting life; one that might include romance with Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), the amiable co-worker who doesn’t know he’s alive.
Early in the movie, we watch Walter slip in and out of his fantasies, and it’s mildly amusing — and then, for no plausible reason, the fantasies get real and the movie becomes, inexplicably, dull. Its second half is all special effects (Walter climbs the Himalayas, rides a helicopter in Iceland, jumps into the Atlantic Ocean ... ), and you realize with a disappointed thud that these aren’t fantasies, which means they aren’t going to stop any time soon.
The whole point of Thurber’s Walter Mitty is that he’s a dreamer, not a stuntman; Stiller’s “Walter Mitty” feels expensively tone-deaf. There are a few sweet moments between Stiller and Wiig (you can picture these two making a charming rom-com together), and Sean Penn is an unexpectedly bracing presence, but by the end you wish Walter’s life was still secret. It’s a movie that climbs mountains and crosses oceans, and yet has nowhere to go.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org