The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a puppy-dog movie: it nips at your heels, yips in your ears and never lets up in its desire to please. Meanwhile, its tongue is hanging out in that particularly dopey way that distinguishes dogs from cats.
The frustrating thing is that I wanted to like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (for the record, I also prefer dogs). Ben Stiller, the director-star, has proven he’s capable of more than dumb comedy and the screenwriter, Steve Conrad, has been involved in two of my favorite movies of the past 10 years (The Promotion, The Weather Man). The plot they’re working with – drawn from a short story by James Thurber – also had potential, as it follows a Life magazine photo editor whose imaginative daydreams begin to get the better of him.
But man is this thing trying hard. From its showy opening credits – which are “stenciled” onto buildings and streets – to Stiller’s endless bag of camera tricks (it’s as if he believes he’s competing with Citizen Kane) – Walter Mitty hasn’t a moment that could be called effortless. The movie labors intensely, trying to show that it’s wearing big-boy pants.
The irony is that this is at complete odds with the film’s theme, which is literally spelled out at various times on buildings and signs with that same stenciling gimmick. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an oppressive ode to throwing off the doldrums of everyday adulthood and embracing youthful adventure. And so, when corporate hatchetmen announce that the magazine will be publishing its last print edition, Walter (Stiller) doesn’t just go back to his basement office to sulk, as he normally would. Instead, he sets off on a global trek to find a missing negative from a reclusive photographer (Sean Penn) that will serve as the magazine’s last cover image. In the process – I’ll pause here so you can beat me to it – he finds himself.
The movie labors intensely, trying to show that it’s wearing big-boy pants.
From very early on, Walter Mitty takes little detours to depict Walter’s elaborate daydreams. Many are staged for laughs, and while I appreciate that Stiller didn’t feel the need to completely abandon comedy, I wish more of the comedy worked. What we get are gimmicky accents that seem left over from The Ben Stiller Show and random send-ups of cultural artifacts like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I believe Walter Mitty has been in development for a while, but surely they could have updated that bit.
There’s another central problem with these visions: nothing unites them. While most are comedic, there are also elaborate action sequences and moments of wistful longing. Each exists for its own sake, rather than working together as a reflection of Walter’s personality. The one daydream sequence that does work proves this point. On his journey, as Walter hesitates about climbing aboard a dangerous, tiny helicopter, he imagines the woman he’s pursuing (a wasted Kirsten Wiig) serenading him in encouragement. This is effective not only because it speaks to Walter’s desires, but because it offers a slightly heightened version of reality. He really does get on the chopper, just not in this exact way.
From there on out, though, it becomes the Walter appreciation hour. After boldly rising to a series of challenges, he returns a new man, complete with clothes from REI and a scruffy beard (never mind that those hatchetmen sport similar beards). Walter is greeted with approving nods by his coworkers, compared to Indiana Jones by a friend and honored in a way normally reserved for Time’s Person of the Year. Not too much earlier in the film, Penn’s photographer observes, “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” The Secret Life of Walter Mitty does so with every frame.