To understand why Ben Stiller would be interested in adapting the 1939 short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, you only have to watch that episode of Ricky Gervais’ BBC sitcom Extras, in which Stiller, playing himself, sportingly sends up his image as a conceited, self-aggrandizing star-director. Walter Mitty, after all, the tale of a wistful daydreamer who imagines himself in elaborate heroic situations, is every narcissist’s wet-dream.
Stiller directs and stars as Mitty, a regular Joe who routinely zones out into thrilling imaginary worlds as if to escape his dead-end job in the photo department at LIFE magazine. Mitty has a crush on his colleague Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), but he’s got more urgent issues to worry about. His boss (Adam Scott) hates him, and he’s about to lose his job when the magazine goes from print to digital. As if he didn’t have his hands full already, he must locate a crucial missing negative and a mysterious photographer (Sean Penn), the search for whom takes him on an adventure much wilder than anything he’s ever dreamed up. From Greenland and Iceland to Afghanistan and the Himalayas, Mitty treks across stunning landscapes, giving us some of the best visuals you’ve seen on the screen recently.
Stiller, who appears in virtually every scene in this film, is a fine comic actor, but watching him here you’d think he’s vowed to put on his most serious face to play Mitty. It’s a surprisingly hard-edged, humorless performance that fails to endear the character to the viewer, and doesn’t help the movie either.
Alas, the film itself packs all the emotional wallop of a schmaltzy Hallmark card, whereas it conveys its message – to embrace new experiences – with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The only genuinely affecting relationship is between Mitty and his mother (Shirley Maclaine), whose cake, in one particularly contrived scene, he offers to a group of Afghan warlords.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty doesn’t have the lightness of touch you associate with a whimsical Wes Anderson picture. It does have a few cheeky moments – like one in which Mitty shows off some killer skateboarding moves, that Cheryl unfortunately misses – but not enough to make it a genuinely enjoyable watch. In the end it comes off as an indulgent vanity project for a misguided star who thinks two hours of his adventure-holiday videos would make for charming cinema viewing.
I’m going with two out of five for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I’d rather watch Zoolander or Tropic Thunder again on DVD; Ben Stiller’s so much more fun when he isn’t taking himself too seriously.
Rating: 2 / 5