We all change, but is it always for the better? It’s hard to imagine that the Ben Stiller behind The Ben Stiller Show - a comedy program that regularly parodied vapid entertainment and the self-satisfied personalities behind vapid movies - would much recognize the Ben Stiller behind The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Maybe he would, like me, spend a lot of the film’s running time waiting for the joke to drop, the reveal that all of the sanctimonious emptiness of the film was a put on. Maybe he’d even go as far as I did, sitting through the credits, waiting for a hint that 2013 Ben Stiller wasn’t so far up his ass that he made a two hour long credit card commercial that nakedly craves the Oscar. I never knew the old Ben Stiller, but I have to think he’d be kind of disappointed.
There’s no way to explain what is monumentally wrong with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty without revealing information that I think counts as a spoiler, but a negative spoiler - ie, revealing that something doesn’t happen, as opposed to revealing what does happen. That means what follows could be considered a spoiler-heavy review.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty takes James Thurber’s famous (very) short story and puts it through the filter of Entourage - no, not the sexism and bro-factor of the show, but the way that the HBO series assidiously avoided conflict or hardship. Entourage is a show purposefully drained of drama; Vinny Chase is never fazed or truly set back by anything, and he just keeps happily moving forward.
If you’re familiar with the short story this probably makes no sense, so let me explain: in the first act of Walter Mitty our main character is a guy working at Life Magazine, which is about to shut down print operations and move to being an online entity only. Mitty works in the photo processing dungeon - a vital part of the old Life, which featured the best photography of the 20th century, but increasingly useless in a world without film. Mitty floats through his day often getting caught up in daydreams where he’s heroic and brave and sometimes even super-powered. In the real world he’s a schlub, single and lonely, but in his mind he’s a hero.
Then something happens in act two and Walter Mitty makes a decision to suddenly drop everything and travel across the Atlantic to search for the daredevil photographer who has been his hero for years. At first it seems like this must be a dream sequence, and Ben Stiller even shoots it with visual signifiers that tell us it’s a fantasy - the Life Magazine motto appears on the wall of a plane, a text message Mitty gets reveals itself in the crumbling face of a mountain, Mitty battles a shark and skateboards across half of Greenland - but it’s not.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, based on a story famously about a guy who daydreams, totally drops the daydreams about a third of the way in. Once it drops the daydreams the movie is essentially over because Walter Mitty’s story is essentially over - he has actualized himself, becoming the man he wanted to be, by taking a bold step. But the movie just keeps on going; despite Mitty’s arc being complete like 50 minutes in, the film just keeps running. Everything Mitty does works out perfectly to the point that when he learns he threw away the thing he was chasing the whole film his mom tells him she already fished it out of the garbage.
It’s anti-drama. And it makes sense for the same reason Entourage makes sense; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn’t so much trying to tell a story or make us think about anything, it’s trying to give us the feeling of diaphanous well-being we get from credit card commercials that feature smiling people in exotic locations. Entourage is fantasy fulfillment for date rapists, Walter Mitty is fantasy fulfillment for middle aged white people who are really up on their airline miles.
There’s something to be said about uplift, especially when it’s as gorgeous as Walter Mitty (if you do subject yourself to this swill, do it on the biggest screen possible; if anybody gets nominated for anything with this film I’m behind cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh getting a nod for his astonishing landscape photography), but that uplift should be in some way - any way! - earned. Nothing is earned in Walter Mitty; Mitty has to take one action - get on a plane - and everything just flows from there. This isn't a movie, it's Xanax.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’s biggest sin is being a boring, smarmy piece of undramatic spittle, but its second biggest sin is wasting Kristen Wiig. She plays the girl at Life Magazine who has caught Mitty’s eye and she has absolutely nothing to do in the film. It’s the kind of hollow, pointless role that exemplifies the problems of female characters in modern cinema. Wiig is worth more than this.
As The Secret Life of Walter Mitty ended I thought for sure there would be a stinger that revealed it was all a fantasy, that the entire second act had been an elaborate dream sequence and that Mitty would have to take the lessons he learned about himself in his own mind to do something in his real life. It would be something small, but it would be something that resonated, something small we could all do, some tiny way of asserting ourselves in the world. But nope, it was all real, and the guy who previously couldn’t confront his bully boss on the elevator did in fact fight a shark and the whole movie is about a guy who has these crazy daydreams and then goes out and lives those daydreams with no complications.
As an adaptation, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is nothing less than an abomination. The film uses nothing from James Thurber’s classic story except the title and (sort of) the concept. In Thurber’s story Mitty remains unchanged, and even his heroic daydreams are interrupted by the mundane realities of his life. His final fantasy has him facing a firing squad, a dark finish that garbage fluff like Stiller’s movie would never have the balls to approach. But it’s very possible that as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty enters its slack, uninvolving final act you’ll understand exactly where the literary Walter Mitty was coming from.
It's worth noting that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is dripping in products, and there are a couple of moments where characters actually stop to present commercials for eHarmony and Cinnabon. I've written about it here.
There's a scene in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty where Ben Stiller stops the film and parodies The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. This sequence is pretty funny, but it made me sad - this bit is like a cry from the old Ben Stiller, trapped somewhere in the basement of modern Ben Stiller's soul. This is the guy who poked holes in gasbags who chased Oscars. Now he's the gasbag.