Fair disclosure: I adore the original 1947 version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Danny Kaye in the title role. I think it’s one of his very best performances, and the recent remaster makes the film look bright, vibrant and smart. In the original, based on a short story by James Thurber, Mitty works at a book publishing company that produces pulp magazines like “True Detective” and “Crimes and Criminals” and is prone to exotic daydreams even as his job is to create and sell fantasies to eager customers.
In the remake starring the likable Ben Stiller in the title role, everything’s been updated and he works as a photo archivist at Life Magazine. As in the original, life is something he watches and dreams about, not something he participates in, and it’s the flights of fancy, the daydreams that Mitty has in this newer film that are the best parts of the movie. With modern special effects and some remarkable juxtapositions of imagery, there’s much to enjoy during the period when Mitty (Stiller) is having his flights of fancy.
But then the remake falls flat on its face, completely missing the point of the original story and earlier film by Mitty actually having amazing experiences but stopping his daydreaming. The problem is, it’s the daydreams that let us identify with Mitty and once he stops daydreaming because, presumably, he’s becoming “fully realized”, the film just gets dumb. Add to that the increasingly improbable experiences that he does have, experiences that anyone who is used to daydreaming would never actually do, and he becomes too much of a comic character and less believable.
In the original film Mitty (Kaye) is still daydreaming at the end of the movie and it’s clear that while he’s learned something about himself and about the need to do, not just daydream, he’s still the same hapless fellow. It’s a sweet film and every viewer identifies with it because we all fantasize about being fast, powerful, handsome/beautiful, a hero, a celebrity, even as we’ve stopped paying attention to the person talking with us.
In the remake, however, Mitty (Stiller) transforms in such a way that while it may be consistent with our narcissistically self-focused age is not believable and left this viewer bored. In a movie any character can do anything, beat up a dragon single-handedly, jump out of a plane without a parachute and walk away from the landing, even beat up a dozen street thugs. That’s boring, though, because it breaks our suspension of disbelief, and it’s the idea of toying with that concept that makes the story so compelling, in the same way that the brilliant Rear Window toys with us as voyeuristic viewers of a movie from our safe theater seats.
Life Magazine published its final issue in 2007 and that’s the setting of the remake. Mitty is the head of the photo archive department and he’s secretly in love with Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), though there’s zero chemistry between them so it’s unclear what fuels his passion other than perhaps base lust. She, of course, sees him as a dork, a loser who is the butt of every office joke and constantly makes a fool of himself with his perpetual daydreams. They’re both on eHarmony, but every time Mitty tries to send her a “wink” the system fails, a rather daft running joke.
When the new “dotcom” owners come into the building and announce that the magazine’s going to go all-digital, it’s Mitty who is in charge of finding the perfect cover photo for that final issue, a photo mysteriously sent to him by field photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). In charge of the transition team is Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), the nemesis of every staffer at Life, but particularly Mitty, who he teases mercilessly from the first time they interact. Does he get a comeuppance? In the original film, it’d have been a daydream of justice, but in the remake it’s predictably far more heavy handed.
It’s a fact of life in Hollywood that product placement is part of the approach to covering the cost of production and marketing, but rarely will you encounter a film with more overt placement than this one. Between eHarmony and Papa John’s Pizza, I felt like the filmmakers should have paid me $5 for sitting and watching a two hour advertisement. The last film I can remember being so over the top with this was the eminently forgettable 1993 Snipes / Stallone sci-fi film Demolition Man, brought to you by Taco Bell. Subtle placements are fine, but when it’s so obvious it really does adversely affect enjoyment of the movie.
There are many films that can be broken down into acts, as if of a play, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of those, where the first half of the film, up until the moment that Mitty decides to get on a plane to Greenland to pursue the lost cover photo, is quite fun and entertaining. Ironically it’s once he’s having those adventures that the film loses its way and stops being about a “secret life” at all. Which is too bad, because Stiller is an excellent choice for a dreamer like Mitty (a role he played beautifully in Night at the Museum, for example). So I’ll recommend this film as a DVD rental, but that’s about it.