Ben Stiller excels at playing genial outsiders lost in their personal grievances; as a director, from the unfairly maligned broadcast satire of “The Cable Guy” through the outlandish fashion world satire of “Zoolander” and the Hollywood satire of “Tropic Thunder,” Stiller has shown a penchant for wacky energy that builds on seemingly real world situations with cartoonish absurdity.
On paper, then, the idea of Stiller directing and starring in a new adaptation of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” the 1939 James Thurber short story previously turned into a 1947 feature starring Danny Kaye, makes perfect sense: The actor is a natural fit for the role of an everyman daydreamer lost in far-out heroic fantasies, which present an opportunity for a contrast between normality and dramatic overstatement that Stiller theoretically has the filmmaking chops to explore.
Unfortunately, his long-gestating “Walter Mitty” treatment, less an adaptation than an original story that transports the character from Thurber’s story into modern times, shows none of the edgy storytelling looniness present in Stiller’s finest work. Instead, every element seems calculated to service an easygoing commercial product that plays up the sentimentality of the scenario while rendering it inoffensively bland. Steve Conrad’s straightforward screenplay, coupled with warm music cues, Stuart Dryburgh’s romantic imagery and a basic triumph-of-the-little-guy plot, give “Walter Mitty” the one-note capriciousness of a swooning Mac commercial. It all goes down light and easy, but to what end?
The irony of the movie’s emptiness stems from a lack of vision in a story exclusively about just that. In development stages for years, this version of “Walter Mitty” has been tossed around various studios by producer Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. (whose father produced the previous version) since the early nineties, when hotshot directors ranging from Ron Howard to Steven Spielberg expressed interest.
Passed through so many hands, its underlying appeal has been steadily rubbed out: Stiller’s take has no discernible personality, much like Walter himself.
In this version, the character is an isolated Life magazine staffer who wastes his days developing negatives for the publication’s photographers, an inadvertent metaphor (in a movie rife with overt ones) for the lack of clarity in its ideas. The story finds Walter tasked with tracking down the cover photo for the magazine’s last issue before it ceases print publication; in between imaginary sequences in which he impresses fellow Life staffer Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) with daring rescues and macho exclamations, his more plausible quest involves a search for the nomadic photographer and adventurer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn, in little more than a cameo role) in the hopes that he possesses the missing shot the magazine demands. That solitary plot device holds less appeal than Walter’s apparent psychological disconnect from the world around him, though Stiller never does much creatively with the device.
Walter’s conundrum is formulated early on, during a phone call he makes to an amiable service rep from eHarmony.com, the dating site where he initially tries to stalk Cheryl before realizes he needs to flesh out his profile. (The site’s presence marks one of several gratuitous instances of product placement; it’s got nothing on the way Papa John’s figures into Walter’s melancholic backstory). “I haven’t really done anything notable or noticeable,” Walter sighs, then imagines himself making a superhero plunge into a burning building while a pleased Cheryl looks on. With the tension between Walter’s real life and his daydreams established even before the opening credits, the movie settles into a basic rhythm that continues throughout the first act, before illusions and reality merge with predictably saccharine results.
Walter’s non-imaginary world doesn’t hold much more credibility than his dreams. Wiig, stuck in a basic role that calls for little more than routine line readings, offers little depth to justify Walter’s obsession with her. Adam Scott, as the comically bearded corporate overlord tasked with bearing down on Walter at every moment, brings a broad silliness out of the sync with the everyday quality of his world. Shirley MacLaine, as Walter’s supportive mother, has only a few scenes to bring a more refined ebullience to the story, but it’s pretty much beside the point: This has always been Walter’s tale, so at least Stiller’s subdued performance manages to make the character’s alienated state into a kind of connective tissue that carries the story from scene to scene.
However, having outlined the details of Walter’s drab existence and the sunny delusions he uses to escape it, “Walter Mitty” goes from being unremarkable to contradictory: It allows its protagonist to embark on an adventure as incredulous as his daydreams, with the character launching on abrupt trips to Greenland, Iceland and eventually the wilds of ungoverned Afghanistan in an attempt to track the elusive O’Connell down.
Set to soul-searching tracks by Arcade Fire among other lively pop music cues, the CGI-heavy visuals of Walter’s journey are at times quite impressive. One nifty shot of an airplane in motion, intended to capture his first overseas trip in its entirety, stands out for its swift depiction of the lengthy journey — but for that same reason has the ostentatious feel of a music video sketch. The presence of such trickery in the ostensibly “real” part of the narrative render it utterly simplistic.
“Walter Mitty” shows greater potential in its first scene, a wittily minimalistic peek at Walter’s lonely apartment life. There’s a certain honesty to its candor that’s invigorated by Stiller’s likably restrained screen presence and allows “Walter Mitty” to remain far more palatable than its blithely superficial narrative allows for.
That’s not an excuse for a lack of engagement, but it’s safe to say there are plenty of good-natured pathos and visual polish to distract from the movie’s failings. Individual moments have been calculated to foreground the emotional nature of the material, most notably when Walter imagines Cheryl singing a gentle rendition of “Space Oddity” to him in Greenland and providing him with a last-second motivation to kick his adventure into high gear. Yet even as the sequence manages to obtain an inspiring kick, it also suffers the fate of an obvious device used too gratuitously, marking the beginning of a downward spiral. By its end, the movie is lost in a Walter Mitty fantasy of its own.
Criticwire grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? 20th Century Fox releases “Walter Mitty” on December 25, when its family-friend qualities, star appeal and timing should help it perform solidly at the box office, although the crowded period makes it unlikely to face healthy prospects in the long-term or gain much traction during awards season.
A version of this review ran during the New York Film Festival.