THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY
DIRECTED BY Ben Stiller
STARS Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig
DAYDREAM BELIEVER: Walter (Ben Stiller, right) imagines that he and his boss (Adam Scott) are fighting over a Stretch Armstrong doll in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. (Photo: Fox)
So the screen version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is vastly different from the James Thurber short story upon which it's based — so what? The original story is a delight, but for the most part, so is the film, which features colorful visuals and a charismatic performance from its leading man.
And that's enough about the 1947 adaptation starring Danny Kaye in the title role. As for the new version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it's something of a queer duck, a movie that may be about life and love and hopes and dreams but feels like it was written by a computer program. Ben Stiller (who also directed) plays our man Walter, a lowly Life magazine employee who has a habit of zoning out at any given moment, whereupon his imagination takes over and he sees himself as a heroic and dashing figure always coming to the rescue of his sweet-natured co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). His only friends (more like acquaintances, actually) are his assistant Hernando (Adrian Martinez) and Todd (Patton Oswalt), the eHarmony operator who frequently calls him to update his profile. (Product placements loom large in this film, to the point that The eHarmony Life of Walter Mitty or The Secret Life of Papa John's would also work as titles.) A new executive (Adam Scott) arrives at Life to oversee the switch from print to digital, and staff downsizing is an inevitability. But first, the final newsstand issue needs to be put to bed, and the negative for the cover image, taken by the fearless, devil-may-care photojournalist Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), has gone missing. So it's up to Walter to travel the world in search of the elusive O'Connell, an odyssey that allows him to transform from a milquetoast into a man.
Or that's the idea; in actuality, Walter's exploits are so singularly uninteresting that there's no cathartic release on the audience's part whenever he scratches another accomplishment off his bucket list. The outdoor cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano) is exceptional, but even these attempts to evoke some genuine emotion through the humbling grandeur of the natural world are nullified by other sequences that are CGIed to death (particularly an endless cross-city chase between Walter and Scott's obnoxious executive). For all its humanist swagger, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty feels only slightly less synthetic than Velcro.