Saccharine "Walter Mitty" Belies Talent, Source Material

At the 90-minute mark of Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty,” an Afghan warlord whimsically eats a slice of Clementine cake from the end of a bayonet. It’s a moment that isn’t any funnier in context, so if you haven’t laughed already, you won’t – and the rest of the film is unlikely to get you there. Based on James Thurber’s 1939 short story – but maintaining little of what made it memorable – the film is visually startling but otherwise wholly disposable. This cloying cinematic greeting card will only appeal to the most undemanding of moviegoers.

James Thurber’s Walter Mitty was a sad, pitiable man, daydreaming his life away as the world passed him by. The story’s humor came from a place of deep melancholy and a feeling of superiority on the part of the reader. Walter was engineered to be laughed at, not with. Danny Kaye starred in a 1947 film adaptation that mostly eschewed Thurber’s tone, providing all the more reason to revisit the story in feature length form.

Regrettably, Steve Conrad’s script is equally unfaithful, painting Walter as a down-on-his-luck good guy who simply needs to break out of his shell. Stiller isn’t ill fitted to play Thurber’s version of the character, but he’s absolutely wrong for this interpretation. We don’t buy him as an introvert who struggles with online dating, nor do we believe him as a vital but under-appreciated employee at LIFE Magazine.

Kristen Wiig co-stars as Cheryl Melhoff, one of Walter’s co-workers and the object of his desire. Seeing a comedienne like Wiig saddled with such an empty, thankless role is a little bit heartbreaking, especially since it’s arguably her first major role since “Bridesmaids.” That heartbreak turns to heartburn when the screenplay moves her to perform an auto-tuned acoustic version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” – along with the original track, no less. It’s bad karaoke made worse by a painfully obvious song choice.

While Walter’s dream sequences are appropriately silly, they’re sickly sweet, the lush visuals cornering us into specific, unearned emotional reactions. More problematically, when Conrad and Stiller try to blend the real with the imagined, the lines between the two blur and the actuality of Walter’s real life loses any edge it had. His problems simply fade away into quirkiness, as if Wes Anderson were suddenly writing and directing his thoughts – albeit a significantly less restrained Wes Anderson.

Sean Penn’s brief role as a mysterious photographer for LIFE Magazine never pays off beyond star power. That the narrative hinges on his character is a reasonable if belabored conceit, but Penn’s presence suggests far more depth than what’s actually on the page. Penn makes an already cartoonish film all the more heightened, his faux-world traveler shtick taking the film’s already overstated grandiosity to ludicrous heights. Even the typically hilarious Patton Oswalt is reduced to mild jesting in his role as an eHarmony rep – one of the film’s many instances of wasted potential.

Ben Stiller is an infinitely talented comedian and storyteller, but you wouldn’t know it from “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.” His creative fingerprints are few and far between here, the pic’s spoon-fed schmaltziness betraying Stiller’s typical satiric edge. The film is interesting to look at, but it’s entirely devoid of narrative heft. It’s an inkblot test minus the ink and minus the paper, trying to convince its audience that it requires neither. What it actually required was faith in its source material. It needed to find an audience rather than be tailor made for one. In its attempt to make general audiences happy, it will satisfy very few. Stick with Thurber’s short story instead.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: December 25, 2013
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Ben Stiller
Screenwriter: Steve Conrad
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn
MPAA Rating: PG (for some crude comments, language and action violence)