Movie review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Jason Y Ng
Since it was first published in The New Yorker magazine in 1939, James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has been a staple in short fiction anthologies in America. The story about a serial daydreamer is only a few paragraphs long, but it was enough to make one ponder about the thin line between fantasy and reality, and how far a person can and will use his imagination to escape a mundane life.
The short story was first adapted for the big screen in 1947 starring Danny Kaye as a daydreaming magazine editor. Over half a century later, actor/director Ben Stiller (Zoolander, The Cable Guy, Tropic Thunder) updates the plot for today’s audience and executes it with eye-popping CGI effects and breathtaking cinematography.
In the remake set in present-day New York City, Walter Mitty is reincarnated as a photographic film curator working for a fictionalized version of Life magazine. Despite its reputation for capturing iconic images of the American life, the magazine has succumbed to the digital media and its print issues will soon be a thing of the past (it is interesting to note that in reality, Life stopped its publication as a standalone magazine in 2000 and is now a photo library for the online edition of Time). But there is more about Mitty than his impending unemployment: he has a tendency to zone out and lapse into elaborate fantasies that are borderline pathological. The alter ego in his daydreams is much more adventurous and audacious, especially vis-à-vis his co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (played by Kristen Wiig) on whom he harbors a secret crush.
Stiller’s Mitty takes on the wistful, Quixotic qualities of Forrest Gump. Unlike the protagonist in James Thurber’s original story, the 21st Century Mitty actually does something about his sad life. A third into the film, the nerdy curator sheds his socially awkward self and transforms into a real-life daredevil. He embarks on a transcontinental journey to locate star photojournalist Sean O’Connor (played by Sean Penn) in an attempt to recover a missing negative. The quest puts Mitty face-to-face with hungry sharks in the Arctic sea, a volcanic eruption in Iceland and AK-47-wielding Afghan warlords. All that has given the director plenty of latitude to turn every video frame into centerfolds from a Lonely Planet coffee table book.
But that’s also where the storytelling gets tricky. Whereas the line between fantasy and reality in the original short story is intentionally blurred, that distinction in Stiller’s adaptation – thanks to Mitty’s new found courage to act out his fantasies – becomes unintentionally murky, making most of the set pieces difficult to sink one’s teeth into on an intellectual level. By redeeming Mitty and making him a real-life hero, Stiller and his screen writer Steve Conrad have painted themselves to a narrative corner.
Storytelling problems notwithstanding, the casting is flawless. Saturday Night Live veteran Kristen Wiig strikes the right balance between sweet and sensible as the object of Mitty’s affection. Sean Penn, wearing a sunburned and weathered face, looks the part as a venerable photographer and plays it with his trademark grit. Turning 80 this April, Shirley MacLaine as Mitty’s doting mother delivers a memorable performance that would give Judy Dench and Maggie Smith a run for their money. As for leading man Ben Stiller, he portrays the well-known literary character -- a delusional 40-something grappling with existential angst -- with equal parts gravitas and deadpan humor. The comedian-turned-character actor has proven that he can be so much more than a clumsy son-in-law or a disaster-prone museum watchman.
Other than the first and the last 15 minutes, the film feels a bit sluggish, even tedious. By the time it is over, however, all the dots connect and the loose ends get tied up. The big reveal at the end is sentimental (especially for those of us who work in the print media) and will wet a few eyes in the theater. Even though it does not reach the spiritual and philosophical depths it wishes to achieve, Secret Life, like many of the characters in it, is sweet and good-natured. It is the feel-good movie of the year.