Ben Stiller directs and stars in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), this festive season’s family-friendly dramedy. Based on a short story by James Thurber – already adapted for the big screen by Norman Z. McLeod back in 1947 – this romanticised wish fulfilment adventure attempts to reconfigure the idealist spirit and creativity of Thurber’s prose and synchronise it to today’s disenfranchised generation. Yet the original story’s denotation of an ineffectual individual who spends time fantasising about imagined heroism to escape the banalities of the real world feels redundant in Stiller’s cloyingly pedestrian take.
Mitty (Stiller) still suffers from vivid hallucinations, but this mild-mannered negative acquisitions officer is forced into the ‘real world’ when a negative containing the ‘quintessence of life’ that has been chosen for the cover image of Life Magazines’ final print edition (even though the real mag ceased printing back in 2000) goes missing. This instant materialisation of Walter’s delusions of grandeur into a tangible adventure is also augmented by a growing infatuation for fellow daydreamer Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). Instantly transformed from a mild-mannered office worker to an all-action hero, Walter finds himself leaping from moving helicopters, wrestling with sharks and fleeing from volcanoes in his search for the missing photo.
A rousing indie score and some arresting, if overly-manicured scenery sadly don’t allow for the banal Walter Mitty to transcend its contrived sentiment and lacklustre moralising. The film’s gentle humour soon gives way to an overriding didactic: namely, how we should seize life by the scruff of the neck. Yet by blurring the lines between monotonous reality and Walter’s fantasy world by making actuality more rewarding, the message gets lost amongst all the other privileged western male fairy tales we’ve become accustomed to. Consequently, the way Stiller’s script transfers the focus from humour to Mitty’s more serious mid-life crisis could be held accountable for his film’s surprisingly unremarkable feel.
As Walter’s mawkish tale unfurls, groan-inducing humour based around Patton Oswald’s gregarious eHarmony telephone support worker and the confusion between the word ‘erection’ and ‘eruption’ with an anxious Icelandic father indicate a bullet gratefully dodged. Ultimately, however, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’s most disappointing aspect is that Stiller has taken genuinely timeless themes and diluted them in a sea of schmaltz and sentimentality. The original Walter’s fantasies stayed locked within his head, like an illness derived from the consumerist appetite for ‘more’. In contrast, Stiller’s film propagates the belief that our inherent disenfranchisement isn’t so much a byproduct of a society built on greed, but a case of us not bucking up our own ideas.
A sharp first half-hour finds Stiller perfectly situated as a lovable loser trapped within a breezy, emotionally matured narrative about the human appetite for companionship and a desire to live as big as we dream. Sadly, the vast remainder of what was already a highly cinematic idea becomes somewhat of a vanity project for Stiller to play out his childish dreams. An atypical family film with all the magic and imagination of a mass-produced Christmas card, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is another example of contrived sentimentality carelessly gift-wrapped and shipped out in time for the holiday season.
Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is released in UK cinemas on 26 December, 2013.