The Secret Life of Walter Mitty exploits pop culture’s fascination with a person deemed “a Walter Mitty”, someone who prefers to escape into fantastical daydreams then to actually live what they consider to be their boring, uneventful life. A character first introduced in the two-and-a-half page 1939 short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber published in The New Yorker, the real and fantasy world of Walter Mitty has come in different iterations over the years before falling into the hands of Ben Stiller for his followup directorial project to 2008’s Tropic Thunder.
In Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Mitty is a photo editor and keeper of photo negatives in the (former but now defunct) print division of Life Magazine. Prone to slipping into daydreams at the most inopportune times, sometimes even in the middle of conversations, he spends much of his time to himself. When the corporate big-wigs decide to end Life Magazine’s monthly print publication, Mitty’s incoming, cartoonish, and horribly-bearded boss (Adam Scott) rolls in to take over the last issue.
When the photograph designated for the cover of the magazine’s farewell issue from famed photographer, and sort of pen pal, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) is misplaced, Mitty journeys to track O’Connell down. This provides circumstances for Mitty to live the adventures he has been daydreaming about. His travels take him to around the world (Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan) and back again and grants him the opportunity to not only find out just how resourceful and McGuyver-ish he can be, but also how essential it is to actually be present in reality.
The problem with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is that it doesn’t fully ever commit to anything it puts forth. In Walter we have a main character that lacks any real definition; he’s not particularly hapless nor does any of his circumstances explain what drives him to check out of reality. He is cared for by a doting mother (Shirley MacLaine) and teased by a kooky yet loving sister (Kathryn Hahn), even admired by a fellow employee.
Beside the few set ups in the film where Mitty is at his most awkward – trying to approach new coworker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig playing Kristen Wiig) he has a crush on, standing up to his boss – we never get a good understanding how why he feels his life is so mundane or why exactly why he should be treated as the film’s underdog.
The movie also teeters between wanting to be nostalgic and modern. The audience is asked to long for the heyday of print media yet embrace outlandish and eccentric fantasy sequences made grandiose by CGI special effects. And just when we begin to be a little bit dazzled by them, they are cut short and we are reminded that they offer very little by way of meaning and offer no extension into Mitty’s personality.
There is also no real trigger for these elaborate daydreams; Mitty just falls in to them like trances. There is also a small storyline involving an eHarmony technician (Patton Oswalt), a seemingly haphazard attempt at some sort of commentary on the contemporary online, digital world. This illustrates how often the movie reaches for depth but largely falters. The only real care is given to the bold, colorful, and often times breath-taking cinematography and constructing quiet moments of thoughtful lament of sorts to the life of print media, culminating in the film’s sweet final scenes.
Final Verdict: At best it’s adequate – it’s enjoyable enough, occasionally funny, and even earnest at times. However, though the film is well-meaning and has the best of intentions, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty offers very little by way of a clear voice, or a point.