I’m not certain to whom The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is meant most to appeal: James Thurber fans? That seems unlikely. Ben Stiller followers? I don’t think that’s a category unto itself. Arcade Fire fans? Might be onto something, there . . .
Which is not to say the film is without appeal. It’s a cute movie. The fact that “cute” is almost certainly not what the filmmakers were aiming at is beside the point. It’s a nice-looking movie that only occasionally dips into the stylized slickness of a credit-card commercial; it has affable and low-key performances that only occasionally slip into (in Stiller’s case) sketch-show irrelevance or into (in Sean Penn’s case) strained life-coach significance; it’s a low-impact love story with almost no stakes, whatsoever. Cute.
The James Thurber short story on which the movie is nominally based is, frankly, though comic, a real bummer. The original Mitty is an ineffectual and cruelly henpecked nobody. His daydreams are desperate and clumsy attempts to escape from the brutal tedium and dissatisfaction of his quotidian life. By comparison, Stiller’s Mitty is eminently successful. As a photo editor for Life magazine, he has worked in a close and mutually respectful professional relationship with a celebrity photojournalist for 16 years; he is liked and admired at work; he is close with both his mother and sister; he is financially stable in one of the most glamorous and expensive cities on the planet.
So, what’s the problem? Well, he has a crush on this new girl at work.
It’s not much of a crisis—which is probably why the filmmakers chose to throw in a somewhat muddled plot twist having to do with a missing photo negative and a corporate downsizing. (“Wait, what? You’re being fired and you’ve got a pressing work deadline? Doesn’t that sort of . . .” Shh. You’re thinking too much.) It’s this wrinkle that motivates Mitty to get out of his head and into a real world of risk and adventure.
The ease with which Mitty transforms from socially awkward nebbish into a dude who, in the words of bit player Patton Oswalt, looks “like Indiana Jones became the lead singer of the Strokes,” is ridiculous. But, more to the point, it’s unnecessary. The Mitty at the beginning of the story—decent, responsible, family-oriented, employed—had easily as much chance of getting a date with the new girl as the recently fired one. Five o’clock shadow’s not that hard to come by.
OK, OK. Suspension of disbelief, and all. And, you’re right, fans: A close-up of Stiller in a medicine cabinet mirror trimming his stubble to “Wake Up” wouldn’t be nearly as rousing.