For every daydream, there is an extraordinary awakening.
Mr. Therbur’s Walter Mitty, which can be read in its entity at New Yorker, was published in 1939 and centered on a tame average-Joe who lives a semi-daydream state, maybe to distract himself from domestic squabbles and the mundane of life and chores; as the likely hero in his own fairytale, all it takes is a “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa” beat transition and he finds himself navigating a Navy hydroplane out of a hurricane, handling emergency surgery while jimmy fixing the anesthetizer with a fountain pen, or facing a firing squad during the Second World War. Back then (and even now) the short story is a perfect excuse for escapism, and it was idyllically fleshed out in 1947 with Danny Kaye as Walter, with two songs and a murder mystery plot plucked out of a pulp magazine – which, by the way, makes sense because he worked as an associate editor at a pulp magazine publication house.
Sixty-Six years later and some odd months later, Mr. Stiller (whose brand of comedy still has a lot of catching up to do for my tastes), has the fitting idea for a present day revision: his Walter Mitty is employed as the manager of film negatives at Life magazine. If you think about it, his workplace, and the magazine in question, with its big, imposing photographs with public and screen icons is keen cynicism for a man who doesn’t really have a life of his own – well, not in the literal sense, that is.
Like Mr. Thurber’s version, though updated for the present, Walter is today’s subservient kind: a humble, modest, meek-ling with mousy confidence.
Unlike Mr. Thurber’s story (where he has a stiff Mrs. hammering him), or Mr. Kaye’s adaptation (where he has a mysterious vixen and a snooty fiancé), Mr. Stiller’s Walter is single. In one of the earliest scenes in the movie, it takes Walter some ten to fifteen seconds to make up his mind and send a social network “wink” to his office-mate Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) on eHarmony (that the wink has a technical glitch, is part of a side-story with a brief, but effective, Patton Oswalt).
In an obnoxious corporate restructure, Life magazine is downsized (another intelligent parallel, perhaps?) and converted to an online publication. (For those who don’t know, Life magazine, despite the homage-cum-product placement, is now defunct and is up as an archive at Time Magazine.
As Life’s last print copy goes to edit, Walter needs to find a missing negative by reclusive, flighty, photojournalist Sean O’ Connell (Sean Penn) on a deadline. In the interim, he passes some transitory scenes with his mom and sister (Shirley MacLaine and Kathryn Hahn) and battles his temporary corporate boss (Adam Scott badly bearded in badly choreographed daydreams, with worse special effects).
On occasion, because the production is fixated on making “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” a major winter release, with all the Christmas bells and whistles that attract genre-ridden humor, Walter’s dreams – and the way he zones out – make him look like a schizophrenic, rather than a very serious-minded man living infantile spurts of imagination.
But bit by slow bit the screenplay by Steven Conrad moves away from these sparse and phony moments – and Mr. Thurber’s underlying gist; in fact, like Walter, left on its own the movie actually ends up finding its distinctiveness. Eventually, Walter’s own maturity becomes the movie’s best companion, when he, unpredictably, finds himself shuttling to Iceland, swimming in shark infested waters and trekking to Afghanistan to find Sean. (Walter’s body-scan by U.S. authorities is one of the best scenes in the movie by the way).
Even as one applauds Mr. Stiller’s own crude self-restraints to farce, for some the slow build-up may be too little too late and too wafer-thin a journey for personal salvation. Like most reveries, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is whimsical and abrupt, and maybe only half-happy with what it daydreamt.
Released by 20th Century Fox, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is rated PG-13 for one or two crude jokes.
Directed by Ben Stiller; Produced by Mr. Stiller, Samuel Goldwyn Jr., John Goldwyn and Stuart Cornfeld; Written by Steven Conrad, based on the short story by James Thurber; Cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh; Edited by Greg Hayden; Music by Theodore Shapiro.
The movie stars: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn and Patton Oswalt.