Based on a short story by yesteryear’s famous humorist James Thurber, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty abandons all mirth in its lifeless look at a shy, repressed drudge who lives in daydreams to escape the crushing boredom of his life. The premise is hoary and drearily executed by director/star Ben Stiller. Mitty’s adventures, both real and imagined, are uninspired and devoid of emotional payoff and comedy. The movie plays more like a travelogue than a comedic quest.
The failure lies not in the talented cast, which includes Sean Penn, Kristen Wiig, and Shirley MacLaine, but in the lack of material for them to play off of. Only the inimitable Adam Scott is provided a few delicious moments of camp in which to sink his teeth. Everyone else is wasted in this unceasingly anti-climatic movie. What should have been a riotous romp lacks not only inspiration but respiration.
The hilarious Kristen Wiig is sadly misspent as the object of Mitty’s romantic obsession. She plays it straight as the normal coworker whom Mitty romantically fixates on from afar. The problem is that she is so unimpressively normal in her portrayal that she demonstrates no tangible justification for Mitty’s obsession—which then becomes creepy rather than heartbreaking. If Walter Mitty drove a van, his “secret” might have been one for CSI.
The biggest problem with the film is Mitty himself. Stiller’s “shy underdog” actually comes across as an unsympathetic, jealous wannabe. Mitty’s shyness and trepidation only manifest around Wiig’s character. When action is demanded, “shy, fearful” Mitty only moderately demurs and then jumps in—literally, at times. He actually is quite composed and even caustic when he wants to be . . . and silent and scheming when he wants to be.
Mitty’s repression seems more a repressed rage—as though he is one frustrated daydream away from going postal at work. Perhaps the strain of directing fostered an intensity Stiller could not conceal on camera. His eyes evince a haunted, angry glare when they should be sad or tender. At least Danny Kaye broke into a song and dance number whenever his Walter Mitty tilted a bit toward the deranged.
The story doesn’t help in that regard, either. Neither love nor duty drive Mitty’s quest to recover a key item lost at work. Rather, hubris fuels the engine of his solipsistic obsession, combined with petty anger at his arrogant boss and a boiling jealousy of all whose lives appear more exciting than his. These are simply not sympathetic traits.
Compounding the problem is that the story fails at its core. Mitty’s quest to achieve his “in-your-face!” revenge on his boss never truly seems dangerous or to rise to the level of heroics. His deeds are arduous and uncomfortable, but not distinctive or funny.
Unfortunately, that description aptly defines the movie itself.
Check out the trailer at