‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ movie review: Ben Stiller’s take on the classic story

An ambitious, beautifully staged and shot adaptation of the classic James Thurber short story, Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty reaches for far more than it actually delivers, and contradicts the theme of the original story in the process, but it’s so darn earnest – and looks so darn good – that I frequently didn’t care. 

The original short story was a deeply cynical tale that contrasted Walter Mitty’s vibrant fantasies with his mundane daily existence: the character’s name even made it into American vernacular, referring to an ineffectual daydreamer. There was no reprieve for Mitty in Thurber’s story: his final escape from reality was to face death by firing squad.

A 1947 film version used the character as a jumping off point for broad comedy, as Danny Kaye’s daydreaming Mitty inadvertently became embroiled in international intrigue – for real. The film bore little similarity to the original story, but it’s a classic comedy in its own right, and one of Kaye’s best-remembered films.

Enter the 2013 Mitty, written by Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness), and directed by Ben Stiller, who also stars in the title role. This Walter is a lowly office worker who frequently gets lost in daydreams, and has led an especially mundane existence; he can’t even fill in the “been there, done that” section on his eHarmony account because, well, he hasn’t been anywhere, or done anything.

Walter works as a negative assets manager in the photo department for Life magazine, who are currently being taken over: their next issue will be their last. They need a cover, and star photojournalist Sean O’Connell has sent a reel of film along with a memo that denotes negative 25 as that cover, one that captures “the quintessence of Life.”

Only problem: negative 25 is missing from the reel that O’Connell has sent Walter. With no way of reaching Sean through conventional methods, Walter is inspired to go on the adventure of his life – from New York, to Greenland, to Finland, to the Afghan Himalayas – to track him down and obtain that elusive photo.

Where the 1947 film had already altered Thurber’s story by inadvertently placing Mitty in an adventure, this film goes one step further: Mitty actively decides to go on an actual adventure. No big deal, but the character feels hamstrung: he’s forced to be a “Mitty”, even though he’s really more ambitious than that. Or maybe the theme here is that a “Mitty” can change his spots. 

In any event, the Mitty daydreaming sequences – each of which are showcased in the film’s excellent trailers – are some of the film’s most striking scenes, but thematically they don’t belong here: his actual adventure should take center stage. Whether tackling his new boss (Adam Scott) out of the window, or romancing the girl he’s in love with (Kristen Wiig), the film would have been better served in early scenes by just showing us Mitty zoning out – his vivid fantasies have the unintended effect of upstaging (and de-emphasizing) his mundane reality.

But this Mitty is earnest and well-intentioned, and it looks incredible, with some impeccable shot composition (Stiller seems to be taking a page from the Wes Anderson book) and gorgeous cinematography from Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano). 

Director Stiller’s most ambitious project to date, Walter Mitty opened to mixed reviews this Christmas but it’s striking design and go-for-it theme should make it a hit with audiences. And while it doesn’t resemble Thurber’s creation in the slightest, it’s the spiritual successor to another source: John Patrick Shanley’s Joe Versus the Volcano, another impeccably-shot film that covered some similar thematic ground.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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