James Thurber’s whimsical short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was about a bored, unassuming married man who escapes his humdrum life through wildly adventurous fantasies in which he becomes a war hero, a test pilot and the like. He avoids the boredom of errands and life’s routine that way.
In Ben Stiller’s new film based on that 1939 story, the daydreaming Mitty becomes a shy 40something who isn’t so much avoiding reality as using fantasy as an excuse for not seizing the day, for not asking out the woman (Kristen Wiig) at the office, for never traveling and experiencing the world. He’s not so much avoiding his dull reality as failing to, as the Latins said, “carpe diem.”
It’s a charming, whimsical and ever-so-slight film, a bit of an overreach but pleasant enough, even when it falls short.
Walter Mitty is a methodical man, carefully budgeting his life, looking after his elderly mother (Shirley MacLaine), too dull to have anything to post on his eHarmony dating profile, too shy to reach out to that pretty new hire Cheryl (Wiig) at work.
He has managed the photographic negatives at Life magazine for 16 years, living vicariously through the hero photographer (Sean Penn) who still shoots photos on celluloid in an Instagram world. But Life has just been taken over by a company that plans to close it after one last issue.
And the meticulous Walter, hounded by the corporate boor (Adam Scott) now in charge, has misplaced an image the famous photographer insisted was “the quintessence of Life.”
Every day, Walter walks through Life’s halls and loses himself in shots of mountain climbers in the Himalayas. He imagines the witty comebacks that would insult the new boss to his core or win the fair Cheryl. He “zones out” in these fantasies. Everybody notices.
And he sees that Life motto, emblazoned on the wall, which begins with “To see Life; see the world.” Which he never has.
One of the clever conceits of Steve Conrad’s adaptation of the Thurber story is to incorporate elements from “It’s a Wonderful Life” in it. Walter has been too caught up in responsibility and his own timidity to live the life of his dreams.
But that missing photo and photographer give him purpose. His stumbling conversations with Cheryl convince him that he has a mission – to track down the elusive photographer and find “frame 25,” “the quintessence of Life.”
And we’re off – to Greenland, Iceland and beyond, chasing ghosts, a photograph and a dream, emptying the bank account even as his life and career are upended in the Great Media Disruption that is journalism today.
A cute touch – Walter doling out updates on the days he seizes to his eHarmony support tech (Patton Oswalt). Clever bits include the notion that all the new bosses wear beards, with Ted (Scott) acting out his sarcastic fury at Walter’s daydreaming by labeling him “Major Tom,” from David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity.”
One dream Walter wants to make come true is “a little ‘Pina Colada Song’ kind of thing” with Cheryl, making her see him anew, as someone who is more than he seems. The movie gives us hints (which Cheryl never sees) that this is true.
The film’s ambition and reach seem greater than they actually are, much like the locations (Iceland stands in for most of the exotic places Walter travels) and the product placement plot points. Its quiet tone – built around Stiller’s buttoned-down, meek, Steve Carell-like performance – can make you think it’s deeper than it is.
But the visuals of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” cast a spell. The “world is changing, time to change with it” story – with its many forms of obsolescence, from photo magazines to Kodak film to photographers and “negative managers” – will resonate with anyone who has poured years into a job that this disruptive, digital age has killed.
And the message – Life isn’t a magazine, a job or a savings account, but an experience – is as timeless as the boring and bored Walter Mittyesque dreamer that James Thurber created 75 years ago, when Life was still a magazine.