This timid remake of “Walter Mitty” loses its namesake’s cultural meaning on the way to a happy ending. Ben Stiller is good, but as with many remakes, what he wanted to make was not a Walter Mitty story for there is nothing Mittyish in his version.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was first published in The New Yorker 18 March 1939. Written by James Thurber, the story is just over 2,000 words (2,083) and this wisp of a tale was made into a 1947 comedy with Danny Kaye. The noun phrase Walter Mitty has entered the American English language and is carried in dictionaries like Merriam-Webster where it is defined as “a commonplace unadventurous person who seeks escape from reality through daydreaming.”
In the original story, Walter Mitty is married to a woman known only as Mrs. Mitty. They have a routine, which might seem old-fashioned to some, of going into town so that Mrs. Mitty can have her hair done. Walter Mitty does minor shopping during this time and then meets his wife in a hotel lobby. The whole short story probably takes place in the span of less than two hours.
During that time, he imagines himself to be a Navy commander, a world-famous surgeon, an expert marksman on trial, and a captain in the Air Force during World War II and a man facing a firing squad.
That is not the movie that Steve Conrad has written, that Ben Stiller has directed. Although, the plot is supposedly based on the Thurber short story, no one believed that a movie about a man, trapped in his own fantasy world, would be of interest to audiences today and justify a $90 million budget.
In this version, Walter Mitty is a New Yorker. He lives in an apartment so sterile that it could be a nice office. He been working at Life magazine for 16 years and is now the head of the negative assets department. As a young teen, he had a mohawk and was a skateboarder with dreams of backpacking through Europe, but like George Bailey, his dreams were dashed. In this case, the untimely death of his father resulted in him beginning work full-time at a pizza joint (Papa John’s).
Walter Mitty has been able to crawl up from fast food work life, but not been able to join in the social life of the world that surrounds him. He has a mother, Edna (Shirley MacLaine), soon to be entering a retirement community, and a sister, Odessa (Kathryn Hahn), who auditions for off-off-off Broadway plays. We don’t hear about his old friend and it seems that he has no friends. He’s joined eHarmony in order to date a new co-worker in a different department.
The movie begins on his birthday, the very day that LIFE magazine has been acquired and will be closed down to print its last issue. The takeover and shutdown is being mismanaged by the slick Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott).
On this day, the magazine’s top freelance photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) has sent a roll of negatives stating that number 25 is the “quintessence” of Life magazine, but that negative is missing. Using the surrounding negatives, and asking his crush, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) for payroll information, Walter Mitty pulls himself out of his humdrum life and finds adventure.
Yet his adventures are just as wild as his dream fantasies. Some horribly unadvisable such as trekking alone in the snow on the kind of deserted mountains of the Himalayas where you’d find the snow leopard (or Sean Penn posing as a photographer).
This remake of “Walter Mitty” is hardly Mittyish at all and the comedy is downplayed except for the Benjamin Button reference. There’s gentle humor surrounding a Clementine cake made by Edna and some missed-it-because-she-wasn’t-looking-the-right-way sort of scenes, but lost is the Thurber battle of the sexes (a common theme in his works) and the man who dreams that his daily routine has some adventures. One imagines that the Walter Mittys of the world, especially in Los Angeles during rush hour, have much time to embellish their lives and with the growing popularity of Cosplay, a ready avenue to travel down. Yet would Walter Mitty even dare to venture into Dungeons & Dragons, the multiplayer online fantasies or the Cosplay conventions? We’ll have to wait for that kind of Walter Mitty adaptation.
As Mitty Stiller is a nice guy and would be bland except he does have a villain to face, his new boss Ted who has come in to shut LIFE magazine down. Scott plays Ted as a snarky hot shot with a neatly trimmed beard and mustache unit made creepy because his two underlings have the same facial hair (which is according to Dyers.org known as the short boxed beard but Zouch Magazine has several beard/mustache charts).
Stiller’s movie places the sweet romance in a believable reality, but Mitty’s supposedly real-life adventures are far fetched and over-the-top. The line between his fantasy and reality is too vague, leaving whatever lesson there might be–perhaps to live one’s dream–murkily realized.
Life magazine began as a weekly in 1936 until 1972. It was reformulated as a monthly from 1978, but its final edition was published in 2000. Life still maintains a website. Of course, there’s a special page on “James Thurber: Portrait of the Man Who Invented Walter Mitty” as well as “‘Walter Mitty’ and the LIFE Magazine Covers that Never Were.”