The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was originally a short story by James Thurber. When I say short, I mean very short. The story is about a man named Walter Mitty who is bringing his wife to her hairdresser. Along the way to the hairdresser and later while he does some errands as his wife is getting her hair done, Walter Mitty daydreams. The very short glimpse of his life that we see seems rather dull and not very pleasant. His wife keeps ordering him to do things and makes him wait around for her as she does things of her own. Really, it is no surprise that someone with a life like this would daydream. The things he daydreams about are all very fantastical lives for himself. He dreams he is an incredible surgeon, a war hero, and things of that nature. The over the top, super-positive, lives in his daydreams contrasted with the rather bleak look at his reality make for a black comedy.
This short story was adapted to film in the '40s with a movie starring Danny Kaye in the titular role. In that movie, Danny Kaye is a daydreamer with a dull life that eventually gets caught up in a real life plot that requires him to become more like the heroes he imagines himself to be when he daydreams. I've never seen the film myself, but it is a well regarded comedy. Clearly though, in making a movie out of such a short story, things need to be added. This original adaptation did that by having Walter Mitty get caught up in a plot much like the ones he would daydream.
Now, Ben Stiller has taken his turn in the titular role in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. He is also the director of the film. Steve Conrad has taken up the task of adapting the short story into a screenplay. Like the first film adaptation, this one has to add a lot to the original story to make it work as a feature length film.
The premise of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty remains the same. Basically, a guy living a dull life daydreams that he is living a better one. Here, what happens is that Walter Mitty will start to zone out in a situation and imagine he takes action and does and says things that he never would in real life. Then he zones back in and his dull life continues. Well, at least for a while. Eventually, he begins to make his life more like his daydreams. There is a good message here about making dreams come true and the power of taking action and making change in one's life, but the message doesn't really work in the movie because of some fatal flaws.
The main problem in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty lies in the whole daydreaming aspect of the story. In the beginning of the movie, Walter Mitty daydreams frequently and the audience comes to expect the zoning in and out of these moments. These daydreams are so over the top that it is easy to figure out that they are just daydreams and that Walter Mitty is going to eventually zone back in to the real world and reveal that none of what was just shown on the screen really happened. As the movie progresses, Walter Mitty starts daydreaming less and actually doing things in real life more. The problem is that these things he does in the real world are sometimes just as over the top as the things he daydreams. This makes his life a little hard to believe. It also caused me to constantly be expecting a scene to end with Walter Mitty zoning back in to the real world, revealing the whole scene to be one of his daydreams.
Another problem with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is that it is just so cliched. Everything that happens in this movie is pretty predictable because it happens in so many other movies. This is particularly true of the plot involving Walter Mitty and his co-worker Cheryl, whom he is attracted to. There are no real chances taken in this film. The ending is totally bland and lacks the power that I think the filmmakers intended it to have.
The acting in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is fine. Kristen Wiig proves that she can do more than just weird, comical, characters in this film. It's hard to imagine anyone better for the role of world traveling photographer Sean O'Connell than Sean Penn. Adam Scott is perfectly unlikeable in his role as the head of the transition at Walter Mitty's place of employment, Life Magazine, in their switch from print to online distribution. Lastly, Kathryn Hahn gets some nice, little, moments of family awkwardness as Walter Mitty's sister.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a story that is hard, overall, to make a feature length film out of because it is such a short story. With this adaptation, Steve Conrad has good intentions in trying to make the story an uplifting one that could inspire people to make positive changes in their life. Unfortunately, the things that happen in this story are so "Hollywood" and unbelievable in the real world that any inspiration the movie could have caused is lost. There are entertaining moments in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and it is a well shot film, but there are too many moments that don't ring true and bring the movie down. What could have been a powerful film is instead an all too familiar one that feels too fake to ever really make any connection with reality. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has more to do with daydreams than any real thing encountered in life.