Director – Ben Stiller, Screenplay – Steve Conrad, Based on the Short Story by James Thurber, Producers – Stuart Cornfeld, John Goldwyn, Samuel Goldwyn Jr & Ben Stiller, Photography – Stuart Dryburgh, Music – Theodore Shapiro, Visual Effects Supervisor – Guillaume Rocheron, Visual Effects – Framestore (Supervisor – Ivan Moran), Hy*drau*lx, Lola VFX, Look Effects, MPC & Soho VFX, Special Effects Supervisor – Mark Hawker, Prosthetics – Prosthetic Renaissance Inc, Production Design – Jeff Mann. Production Company – Samuel Goldwyn Films/Red Hour Films/New Line Cinema/Ingenious Media/Big Screen Productions/Down Productions
Ben Stiller (Walter Mitty), Kristen Wiig (Cheryl Melhoff), Adam Scott (Tim Hendricks), Sean Penn (Sean O’Connell), Shirley MacLaine (Edna Mitty), Adrian Martinez (Hernando), Kathryn Hahn (Odessa Mitty), Olaf Darri Olafsson (Helicopter Pilot), Patton Oswalt (Ted Maher), Jonathan C. Daly (Tim Naughton), Terence Bernie Hines (Gary Mannheim), Marcus Antturi (Richie Melhoff), Porhallur Sigurdsson (Trawler Captain), Kai Lennox (Phil Melhoff)
Walter Mitty is a nerdy negative processor for Life magazine in New York City. He pines for co-worker Cheryl Melhoff and has joined up with dating site eHarmony after hearing that she is a member, although cannot get the site to work properly. He is also prone to daydreams. These become a source of ridicule to Tim Hendricks, the new manager appointed to dissolve the print magazine and convert it to a dotcom. It is decided that Life’s last print cover will be Negative 25, the one that has been sent in by top photographer Sean O’Connell, which Sean calls Walter to say represents ‘the quintessence of life’. However, when Walter looks through the roll he finds that Negative 25 is missing. Threatened with being fired, Walter joins forces with Cheryl to try and track clues from the rest of the negatives on the roll as to the mysterious Sean’s whereabouts. The search for Sean takes Walter from Greenland to Iceland and up into the mountains of Afghanistan, something that transforms his life into a remarkable adventure.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1939) was originally a short story from humourist James Thurber. The story is very brief and consists of no more than Walter Mitty, a milquetoast married man, having a series of daydreams with himself as an adventurer, an important surgeon, war hero and so on whilst dropping his wife off and doing some errands. The point of the story is a comedic contrast between the hero’s absurdly larger-than-life daydreams and the mundane reality he lives in. The story was adapted to the screen as a vehicle for comedian Danny Kaye with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947). There the relatively simple premise of the original story was blown up with the addition of a spy caper plot and the daydream sequences taken over by bloated musical numbers and Kaye’s excruciating comedy routines.
There have been rumours of a remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty off and on since the 1990s – one to have starred Jim Carrey, more recently with Sacha Baron Cohen announced in the role – but none until now. This version, which was apparently rushed into production before the copyright option expired, is directed by and stars Ben Stiller who needs little introduction as an A-list actor since the 1990s in hits like There’s Something About Mary (1998), Meet the Parents (2000) and sequels, Dodgeball: An Underdog Story (2004) and Night at the Museum (2006), among numerous others. Less well known is Stiller’s outings as a director, beginning with the 90s twentysomething drama Reality Bites (1993) and passing through comedies such as The Cable Guy (1996) and the self-starring Zoolander (2001). None of these seemed to be particularly standout up until Stiller’s side-splitting Vietnam War movie deconstruction Tropic Thunder (2008), which showed just what he could do with the right script material.
I looked forward to Ben Stiller’s take on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Tropic Thunder showed a vast potential for him as a comedy director. Moreover, in the central role, it is hard to think of any other actor – maybe Woody Allen – who has perfected the hard-bitten underdog role that Walter Mitty essentially represents better than Stiller. Furthermore, the film was receiving some good reviews and even turned up in some critics Top 10 lists for the end of 2013.
Hopes however dissipate when it comes to actually watching the film. Ben Stiller has done exactly the same things with the James Thurber story that the 1947 film did. In other words, he takes a slim comedy about the contrast between an impractical daydreamer and his mundane reality and blows it up into an adventure. In fact, the adventure that the remake conceives – the quest for a missing photographic negative – is far less in ambition than the spy adventure and search for a list of missing art treasures that the 1947 film had. The disappointment of the film is that Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad seem disinterested in the daydreams and merely make the film into a banal positive thinking drama about achieving the great adventure. Now Walter Mitty’s daydreams feature so little they could have been written out of the plot altogether. And of the ones he does throw in, Stiller seems to lack much interest in them – a couple of over-the-top action movie parodies, a couple of gags mocking Adam Scott, several romantic fantasies of Kristen Wiig and a mildly amusing parody of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) that feels like it has strayed in from a different film. Mostly you feel like the film has been put together so that Stiller can go and shoot some amazing natural scenery – with Iceland standing in for most of the international locations. Yet for all such epic scope, the film has surprisingly little to say – its “live life to its fullest” message could be summed on an inspirational postcard – and the film manages to be rather long-winded about getting there.
Stiller gets a reasonable cast line-up. Kristen Wiig is a talented performer, although the relationship between her and Stiller never much comes to life and the playing off of one another in the scenes we do get seems tepid – you keep feeling that the romance should open up and aim for more than it does. There are some decent performances from Adam Scott, Sean Penn and Patton Oswalt. The surprise is a 79 year-old Shirley MacLaine cast as Stiller’s mother and starting to show her age. (Mind you, Stiller is starting to seem very middle-aged and weary himself).
Much of the film’s flight of fancy is also severely under wound by some of the most blatant product placements we have seen in a film in some time. In this case, placements for eHarmony and Papa Johns are not merely namedropped but woven in as substantial elements of the plot. The film also winds in the real-life dissolution of the print version of Life magazine and its conversion to a digital archive, although this actually occurred in 2007, six years before the film’s timeframe, so could not be considered the product placement you might otherwise think it.