James Thurber’s 1939 short story, ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, has, despite its low page count, now spawned two Hollywood adaptations. Thurber tells the story of Walter Mitty, a put-upon husband, who retreats to daydreams of heroic acts to get away from his humdrum existence. It’s a lovely short story that doesn’t attempt to move beyond a familiar reality in quite the way that the previous 1947 adaptation did. Taking inspiration from the war-time setting, this version eventually took Walter out of his dreams and placed him into a world of espionage and drama. It was a fairly big leap from Thurber’s simple and unassuming original but it was certainly more suitable for a Hollywood film. There has been talk of a modern adaptation since the late 90s and a host of comedy performers have been discussed into taking the leading role. It wasn’t until Ben Stiller came aboard to direct and star in that the film began to really take shape. Now I really like Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig but I can’t say I was exactly rushing to watch a film being hailed as “the new Forrest Gump”. However, the trailers suggested that there may be potential for humour and sentiment so I thought I’d give it a go.
Stiller’s adaptation, like the 1947 version, moves away from the original and gives the title character more room to eventually achieve greatness. Mitty works in the photography department at Life magazine, which, unfortunately, is being shut down in favour of the ever-growing digital media. Walter (played by Stiller), thanks to a family tragedy in his early years (cliché alert), is full of regrets and bored with his life; in order to escape his mundane existence Walter retreats into various fantasy worlds to satisfy his need for excitement. He is ignoring parts of his life because of his tendency to retreat into a fake world and it is causing both professional and personal strife. We see him moving apart from his family and getting into sticky situations with his new boss.
Some of the most memorable moments occur thanks to the juxtaposition between Walter’s two lives and how the people he interacts with react to his moments. Walter’s life is the same drudgery that many people will be able to relate to. Having worked in the picture department for the past 16 years he has a lifetime of regrets and remains too shy and inhibited to be the person he really wants to be. Thanks to this frustration and repression, Walter’s fantasies come crashing (most often literally) through into reality with great gusto and play out in a typically brash Hollywood style. As an example, take the intense dream sequence of the film where Walter, after attempting yet ultimately failing to reach out to his love interest and colleague Cheryl (a criminally underused Kristen Wiig), imagines Explorer Walter bursting through the office wall to woo her with the help of his poetry falcon. (Best idea ever.)
This is all vaguely in keeping with the original source but, obviously, it wasn’t enough to watch Mitty continue to divide his time between his two lives. No, no. That’s not very Hollywood. Therefore, Walter is given the chance to change his future in the most dramatic fashion possible. When his long-time collaborator, photographer Sean O’Connell (a fabulous Sean Penn), presents him with his latest portfolio claiming one of the prints to be his masterpiece, Walter is dismayed to discover the photograph missing and sets out on a journey to track down the reclusive and always moving artist.
Walter leaves his quiet and unassuming life in New York to trek across Greenland, Iceland, Yemen and Afghanistan. Taking a further step into the bizarre and absurd, Walter is quickly taking helicopter rides with drunk pilots before jumping out of it, fighting sharks and skateboarding away from erupting volcanoes. There are some fine moments in this section, not least the aforementioned and kind of beautiful skateboarding scene, but the narrative quickly begins to fall apart thanks to its assumed philosophical message. There is a point where Mitty starts to feel like those awful hipster black and white photos with supposedly inspirational or philosophical message printed on them in comic sans: something which has a lot less to say than it both wishes and believes.
Although, there can be no doubt that Stiller’s film is an absolute stunner. Iceland (which stands in for all four of Walter’s later destinations) looks stunning and he is proving to be a formidable talent behind the camera. However, there is no escaping the sense that the crew all thought there was more to Mitty’s overall philosophy than there actually is. It is a confused story that one minute shows how harmful a life made up of fantasy can be before placing its leading man in exactly the same situations he was dreaming up: a film that attempts to drive home the importance of human contact and togetherness whilst also following a lonely man on his solo adventure across remote regions. The latter parts of the film become increasingly trying and difficult to watch as the journey becomes all the more implausible and self-important. Someone should tell Hollywood that it takes more than a comedy legend acting all serious to make a poignant and inspirational tale.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn’t exactly the major disaster that I was anticipating and, for all of my negativity above, there are some beautiful and vaguely inspirational moments. Weirdly these seem to happen when Sean Penn is on screen but I guess this is a film that deals with unusual situations. However, there is no sense of restraint and Stiller and co. just spread their various morals on a little bit too thick and without enough self-awareness. After the opening sections filled with over-the-top dream sequences, the film is played with unflinching seriousness which doesn’t exactly work when Walter is still rejecting a traditional reality. On some levels it feels like a miss but, thankfully, it still feels like an acceptable one.