It’s hard to watch a movie with a lot of pretense. When you watch one that has really fooled itself into thinking it’s something special when you know full well that it’s not, it brings forth a peculiar kind of embarrassment. You start to feel bad for the filmmakers because their expected feedback is not going to match the feedback they actually receive. Such is the case with Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” an adaptation of James Thurber’s 1939 short story of the same name (which was previously adapted to film in 1947 with better results). It’s still a movie that is easy to enjoy, but it’s far from the poignant tale Stiller undoubtedly wanted to tell.
The film follows our titular protagonist, Walter Mitty (Stiller), a man who lives many different lives: the one that is real and the ones in his head. He’s a fantasizer and is known to zone out at random points in his days, heading off on grand adventures that allow him to life and feel how he wants to. In real life, his day-to-day is decidedly humdrum working as a negative asset manager for Life magazine that the new management is going to turn into an online exclusive publication.
This means many folks are going to be losing their jobs, though they don’t know who. His job is already up in the air, but when he can’t find one photo that renowned photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), sends in, the one he claims is the absolute best photo he’s ever taken and should be the cover for the final issue, Walter decides to take action. He doesn’t know where Sean is, but he nevertheless hops on a plane and follows his only lead to find him.
Of course, in true Hollywood storytelling fashion, his motivation stems not from his desire to keep his job, but from his pretty co-worker crush, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), who urges him to become more adventurous. Their relationship is smooth and easy to watch, if a bit frustrating. Cheryl clearly has an affection for Walter, so his timidity comes off as forced, which is a criticism that is indicative of the film as a whole. The film isn’t as funny as it thinks it is nor as imaginative as it wants to be, as laughs come infrequently and the imagination on display fails to captivate.
Nevertheless, part of the fun of the film comes from the mind game it plays: are these grand adventures we’re witnessing real or are they simply something that is playing out in Walter’s mind? When Walter brings home a longboard he got in Iceland to give to Cheryl’s kid, is there a chance that it’s really just something he bought down the street at a local skate shop? The problem is that if it’s real, it’s a bit bland and if it’s in his head, it’s lacking the excitement and imagination that was so prevalent in the film’s opening moments.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” has an inspiring message of living your life and simply going for it, whatever that “it” may be, but it’s surprisingly thin for a movie so singularly focused on it. Furthermore, the blatant product placement does everything it can to obscure that message. When Walter calls Cheryl from Iceland and he tells her he’s in a Papa John’s, she doesn’t express her disbelief that he actually took the initiative to do something spontaneous. She just talks about her amazement that they have a Papa John’s in Iceland. “They have those there?” she says. Moments like these are distracting and insulting inclusions that detract a significant amount of charm from the overall product.
But even with all the complaints, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” isn’t a bad movie. It’s merely a lackluster one, one that receives more criticisms than praises only because the final result is such a letdown from the promising idea. It still has a good amount of heart to it, particularly from the delightful Wiig who somehow manages to create an interesting and empathetic character out of thin material, but “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is just missing that extra, unexplainable quality that real special movies have.