Daydreamer’s International Awakening
If you’ve seen any trailers for “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” you might be inclined to believe that the movie supplies a fast-paced adventure paired with the extreme fantasizing of its jet setting titular character. The trailer instead charades as a two-minute Walter Mitty daydream. In fact, that might have been a better, if falsely advertised, marketing campaign for a movie that lags, never quite finding its momentum.
James Thurber’s eponymous short story featured his protagonist as a browbeaten husband and persistent daydreamer, lapsing out of reality. Ben Stiller uses the source material to reimagine this man working in the waning days of Life Magazine. A shy, orderly photo librarian, Walter has admittedly never gone anywhere of note, or done anything mentionable. He balances his checkbook scrupulously with a pen, and cares for his widowed mother (Shirley McClain) and sister (Kathryn Hahn). He’s the kind of guy that will send a “wink” on eHarmony to his office crush, instead of talking to her in person.
Her name is Cheryl (Kristin Wiig), a new employee and recently single with a son. He imagines greeting her as an arctic explorer, as Benjamin Button, as himself with more confidence. He later envisions tackling Life’s snobby acquisition manager (played by Adam Scott) through the elevator, ensuing in a Manhattan brawl. Then he snaps back to reality being mocked for his zoned out presence. It’s the only character flaw that distinguishes his fantasies as social impediments, not just natural mental wanderings.
The magazine is switching to online, lay-offs are quick to follow, and Walter is in charge of the final issue’s cover. He needs to find a crucial missing negative though, and must do so by finding Life’s roaming, mysteriously located photographer (Sean Penn) to know where it is. This means actually doing some travelling- to Greenland, to Iceland, to Afghanistan- and, to fulfill the equation, some living. The movie makes it clear that one necessarily follows the other.
This abroad experience requires some sleuthing and decoding, with help from Cheryl, and turns our sheltered Walter into a courageous cavalier. He turns into someone he never fantasized about, helicoptering over freezing waters and biking through lush landscapes. Stiller, who directs and takes the lead role, seems his most comfortable in his character’s introspection, letting cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh beautifully capture Walter’s surroundings. But these scenes, including a craftily shot long-boarding sequence, feel more like an existential journey than an urgent mission, like neatly shot travel commercials than a connective propelling narrative.
You know what Stiller wants to say. It’s reminded to us every time Patton Oswalt as an eHarmony agent calls Walter about updating his online profile. “What?! You’re in the Himalayas?” “You jumped into shark-infested waters?” “You’re really living!” Though Walter seems at home traversing the wilderness in a way that a domestic office loafer might only dream about. Except, he was that same loafer only a few short days before his trip! Everything is played even keel. This is at most times a mellow, melancholy vision of a story capable of grander ambition and imagination.
It also just needs an arc. The climax has no payoff and the implications meeting Penn’s elusive photographer are downplayed into ultimately useless advice. I wanted something more. In Thurber’s vision, the gap between Walter Mitty’s reality and imagination is insurmountable, part of his relatable, human appeal. Once Stiller’s Mitty racks up some frequent flier miles, the daydreams stop. You quickly realize the gap between his reality and fantasy was never very large to begin with. He just needed to purchase some boarding passes.