The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

January 7, 2014
Ben Stiller in 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty', 2013
Ben Stiller in 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty', 2013

Walter Mitty entered the world in 1939, in James Thurber’s New Yorker short story about an aging, hen-pecked husband who escapes into his daydreams. One minute Mitty is steering an “eight-engined Navy hydroplane” through a fearsome storm. In quick succession he is a renowned surgeon saving the life of an important patient; a crack shot being cross-examined in court, and a daredevil pilot on a suicide mission. While these thoughts are flashing through his mind the real Mitty is driving his wife to the hair-dresser, parking the car and buying a packet of dog food. The story concludes with him leaning against a wall while his spouse shops in a drug store. In his imagination he stands bravely in front of a firing squad. However, the real Mitty is not condemned to death but to life.

Thurber’s character was a textbook non-entity – a failure at all those activities that define masculinity. Yet the grey mediocrity of his existence is counterbalanced by the vivid nature of his fantasy life. The name soon found its way into the dictionary. Merriam-Webster tells us that a ‘Walter Mitty’ is “a commonplace, unadventurous person who seeks escape from reality through daydreaming.”

When Hollywood gave us The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in 1947, as a star vehicle for Danny Kaye, we met a very different protagonist. Still a daydreamer, this Mitty was a much younger man – a pulp-fiction proofreader under the thumb of his mother rather than a wife. This Mitty gets involved in an adventure that blurs the line between reality and fantasy.

Thurber reputedly hated the Holywood adaptation. To have Mitty employed in the pulp fiction business takes the edge off his reveries. To have him caught up in espionage and crime is to completely misunderstand the original character. The Mitty who becomes an action hero is no longer Mitty.

One suspects Thurber would be no more enamoured of Ben Stiller’s new version which outguns the Danny Kaye film in turning a non-entity into a man of steel. With the arsenal of special effects Hollywood has at its disposal nowadays this was only to be expected. Where Stiller and his scriptwriter, Steve Conrad, are truly culpable is in taking a brief, sardonic character study and submerging it in vat of syrup.

At its most basic level, Thurber’s Mitty is a study in the alienation of modern man. Stiller and Conrad have given us a cloying fairy-tale for the age of digital media and forced redundancies. This new Walter Mitty, played by Stiller, works as a photo technician at Life magazine, at a time when this famous title is being wound up by its new owners. For the final issue a maverick photojournalist, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), has sent through a sheet of negatives, one of which he describes as “the quintessence of life”. This image is designated, sight-unseen, for the cover of the final issue, but it seems to have disappeared from the contact sheet.

Mitty has never previously been anywhere but he takes on the responsibility of tracking down the photographer and the errant picture. This leads him to Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan and the Himalayas, in a series of adventures that look as if they were sponsored by National Geographic.

The sub-plot concerns Mitty’s timid longing for new employee Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), who plays a leading role in his grandiose daydreams. It’s one of those ‘love among the ruins’ stories, as the magazine collapses around them, threatening both with unemployment.

There is nothing Mitty-like about the job losses ordinary people have suffered in the United States over the past decade. Stiller is tracking over territory explored by Tom Hanks in Larry Crowne (2011), another film in which the director/lead actor took up the cause of the little guy in the face of vast, impersonal forces unleashed by global finance. Larry lost his job in a supermarket and forged a new life. Walter embarks on a globe-trotting quest to ensure Life magazine has its grande finale. The difference was that Larry was making a future for himself, while Walter is nostalgic for a disappearing world.

Stiller’s Walter Mitty is an enjoyable film so long as one doesn’t think about it too much. Market research might indicate this is a fair assumption in regards to mainstream audiences who seem to value movies because of the quantity of explosions, car chases and fart jokes. A dollop of sentimentality passes for emotional depth.

Although the story is wafer-thin, Walter Mitty features spectacular cinematography, a rollicking score from bands such as Iceland’s Of Monsters and Men, and a few clever gags. It’s visually immaculate, with every major scene looking like it has been manicured in the laboratory. The spectacle is almost sufficient to distract one from the abiding impression that this is a very shallow movie striving for profundity. The booming pop music is used to underline every new twist, as if Stiller realised the script needed a helping hand. What he doesn’t realise is that emotion underlined does not equate to greater intensity, it is the definition of kitsch.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
USA, rated PG?
114 mins
Directed by Ben Stiller; written by Steve Conrad, after a story by James Thurber; starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Shirley MacLaine, Sean Penn

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 4 January, 2014.