Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a photo lab nebbish working for Life Magazine. He is also the consummate daydreamer who fantasizes about being adventurous, brave and creative. When a critical photo goes missing and he and his colleagues are in danger of losing their jobs, he must jump to action in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
I had read the James Thurber short story when I was a kid and it has stayed with me to this day – after all, who does not daydream once in a while. In the original, Walter Mitty is out shopping with his domineering wife and, in its very few pages, brings us into his fantasy world. Mitty is a dreamer and thinks of himself in these dreams as a hero. Ben Stiller takes this very short story and turns it into something that is more of a metaphor for the homely caterpillar turning into a beautiful butterfly.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” starts off adhering, somewhat, to Thurber’s short story. Walter has a crush on his coworker Cheryl Melhoff but he is too shy to approach her for a date. Instead, he daydreams about his heroic rescue of her three-legged dog from a gas explosion – and making a prosthetic leg for the pup in the process. There are a couple more of Walter’s fantasies in the mix before the real story, by Steve Conrad, kicks in.
It is just before the last paper issue for Life Magazine is to hit the street before the publication goes online. Walter, the company’s “negative asset manager,” is in charge of getting the magazine’s last cover photo ready for press. The photo is by Life photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn, terrific, as usual, in the tiny role), an adrenalin junkie who travels the world with his camera. There is one problem, though. The critical cell #25 is missing. Walter must find O’Connell to find out what the photo is, but the only clues are the cells before and after #25. This is where “The Secret Life of Walter MItty” takes on a life of its own, far beyond the short story.
Ben Stiller stars and directs this fantasy adventure about a milquetoast worker who is called upon to brave the harshest of elements, including a hungry shark, to track down the elusive Sean O’Connell. Mitty is so obsessed with finding the wandering photographer he does not realize he is becoming the adventurous, brave and creative man he once just dreamed about. It is a feel-good yarn that uses its copious special F/X effectively in moving forward Walter’s journey to becoming a hero.
“The Secret Life…” works best when Walter makes his trek to find Sean and must face one dangerous adventure after another. Unfortunately, the adventure deflates when he returns to New York and Cheryl. Kristen Wiig is saddled with a two-dimensional Cheryl and there is no real chemistry between her and Stiller. This makes the film lopsided but the adventure side of “Mitty” is loads of fun and it will entertain more than just the kids. I give it a B+.
Ben Stiller's take on "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a special effects extravaganza that charts two separate but intertwining goals - his attempts to find a missing photo by tracking its daredevil photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn, brilliant casting) while an eHarmony.com support agent (Patton Oswalt) tries to goose his new profile so that he can garner 'winks,' especially from the coworker, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), Mitty joined for. The primary reason for Mitty's increasingly fantastical globe trotting works - largely due to the colorful characters he meets along the way (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson's intoxicated Icelandic helicopter pilot, Þórhallur Sigurðsson's matter-of-fact trawler captain, Gunnar Helgason's Innkeeper) and their reactions to Mitty's predicaments. But while Oswalt is fun in what's largely a vocal performance, Stiller and a bland Wiig have so little spark it's difficult to care whether they wind up together. "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" does end on an up note though - when we finally see that picture which O'Connell assured all was the cover of the last print issue of Life, it's unexpected, and poignant. B-
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