Film review: Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty is a meandering mess

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Ben Stiller directs, stars in, and dilutes the most recent adaptation of James Thurber’s short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Ben Stiller directs, stars in, and dilutes the most recent adaptation of James Thurber’s short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is terrible. Just terrible. It’s wrongheaded, silly, and worse, confused. The story—about Walter (Ben Stiller), who works as a negative asset manager at Life magazine—is pretty straightforward. Walter doesn’t have much of a life, so he fantasizes. But then something happens to a 35mm film negative that’s going to grace the cover of the magazine’s final issue and he has to spring into action to find it, letting Walter become the adventurer he’s always daydreamed of being.

Sounds harmless, but this is where the wrongheadedness comes in. First, forget what you know about Life’s real history. Here it’s been acquired by a heartless corporation that wants to make it digital only. But there’s so much product placement in the movie (by giant, presumably heartless corporations) that it becomes distracting. Watch Walter talk about how Papa John’s killed his dreams (which is some serious irony considering how much Papa John’s flashes its corporate logo). Watch Walter and some guy (Patton Oswalt) who works at eHarmony (which is great with customer service!) eat at a Cinnabon and talk about how great it is.

But, the giant corporation is getting ready to kill Life. So, Mr. Stiller, do we love the corporations, or are they killing us? Or does it not matter when you have a movie to make? If the story were captivating enough, there wouldn’t be a question.

The story, however, is for the birds. The original piece, James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which ran in the New Yorker in 1939, manages to be more captivating in a shade more than 2,000 words than Stiller’s movie is in one hour and 54 minutes. I’ve written before about how source material doesn’t matter, but I’ll amend that rule: If you’re going to bastardize something, don’t lionize the person doing the bastardization.

In other words, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty turns into the ain’t-Ben-Stiller-grand show. Maybe it means to, maybe it doesn’t. But jumping into icy waters from a helicopter in order to get aboard a boat seems like grandstanding when 30 minutes earlier Walter was afraid of everything. It’s as if the power of being portrayed by Ben Stiller infused Walter Mitty with a heretofore unused spine.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Walter has given up on life, see. His favorite photographer (Sean Penn) has taken the cover photo for Life’s last issue. The negative has gone missing. Walter, who until this point has spent a boring life daydreaming about excitement, springs into action to find it.

He goes to Greenland, then Iceland. It would all be kind of charming if it didn’t seem so smug. Alfred Hitchcock plunged normal people into extraordinary circumstances and let them rise to the occasion (see: North by Northwest, The 39 Steps). Here, Walter is simultaneously saving the magazine’s final issue, getting the girl, and reaching toward life, but it’s mundane because this is the same character Stiller always plays: A loser who looks like Ben Stiller who isn’t a loser. It doesn’t help that the comedy isn’t funny and the action sequences look antiseptic. Maybe Stiller and company should have left this one in the daydream stage.

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  • Bradley Mead

    Most everything Stiller does is a mess. Born to couple who made careers in Hollywood as succesfull comedians, Stiller would never have become notable on the screen without his lineage.

  • Bruce Cauthen

    I don’t know about the review. I really enjoyed the movie. Maybe it just hit me at the right time, but I thought it had a good message. I wasn’t expecting a comedy, so I wasn’t really disappointed. Unrealistic? Sure. Product placement? Sure. High art? No way. But the story of a guy being pulled out of his shell and succeeding beyond his wildest dreams? Okay in my book.

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