Sometimes daydreams do come true. At least, that’s what the Goldwyn family must be feeling now that their long-delayed “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” update finally exists, smarter and less screwball than previous attempts at the material have been. After nearly two decades of rewrites and recasting — during which Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, Mike Myers and Sacha Baron Cohen were each attached — the role falls to Ben Stiller, who also directs. Rather than channeling James Thurber’s satirical tone, Stiller plays it mostly earnest, spinning what feels like a feature-length “Just Do It” ad for restless middle-aged auds, on whom its reasonably commercial prospects depend.
A lyrical comic fable about releasing the exceptional qualities trapped within ordinary people, Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty expands upon the classic James Thurber short story, updating it to the age of corporate downsizing and dehumanizing job elimination. Premiering at the New York Film Festival ahead of Fox’s wide Christmas Day release, the film’s pleasures may be too minor key and its pace too meandering to conquer the mainstream. But audiences willing to tune in to its blend of surreal fantasy, droll comedy and poignancy will be rewarded.
One can't help but wonder after a while whether Stiller is really getting off on having his own ego stroked in the guise of making an inspirational movie about following your bliss. However admirable its life lessons are, by the time this Walter Mitty encases Stiller in black-and-white photographic amber on that final Life magazine cover, it's enough to cast serious doubt on whatever crumbs of well-meaning sincerity one might have been willing to grant him in the beginning.
Individual moments have been calculated to foreground the emotional nature of the material, most notably when Walter imagines Cheryl singing a gentle rendition of "Space Oddity" to him in Greenland and providing him with a last-second motivation to kick his adventure into high gear. Yet even as the sequence manages to obtain an inspiring kick, it also suffers the fate of an obvious device used too gratuitously, marking the beginning of a downward spiral. By its end, the movie is lost in a Walter Mitty fantasy of its own.
It looks like one of those films where the experience of making it must have been remarkable, but that doesn't always translate to an equally amazing experience for the audience. In the case of "Mitty," I think the final film is a mixed bag, a movie with some deft, touching details that also offers up some very pat observations. I felt like I was sitting in a traffic jam, and while I eventually got where I was going, there were a lot of starts and stops along the way.
Ben Stiller's latest directorial endeavor is a love letter to daydreams, the power of imagination, and how extraordinary fantasies can help liven up the reality of an everyman.
Unfortunately, this “Mitty” tries too hard, and as a result his many adventures — both real and imagined — are neither intriguing nor amusing.