Ben Stiller’s remake of the Danny Kaye classic is one of the strangest movies I’ve seen lately. A little under halfway through its running time, it simply stops being “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and becomes an entirely different story – a paint-by-numbers rom-com about an awkward guy getting a bit of adventure into his system, growing a backbone, telling off his jerk boss, and getting the girl.
The central conceit of the story absolutely vanishes at the halfway point, never to reappear. What makes this story special has always been the way it takes you into the head of a world-class daydreamer. His imagination kicks in, an ordinary scene turns into a nutty fantasy for a while, and then suddenly we’re back to the real world and someone is trying to snap Walter out of his reverie. In the remake, the best of these dream scenes is an argument between Walter and the incredibly arrogant downsizing manager who has been sent to dismantle Life magazine, an exchange of unpleasant comments the meek, withdrawn Mitty imagines turning into a crazy action-movie battle that blasts through the wall of their office building and spills out into the streets. We’ve all had a daydream like that, haven’t we?
But even this optimum scene isn’t quite wild enough, or full of the action-movie cliches a man of the 21st century might be expected to have in his daydream flashes. Walter isn’t a very imaginative dreamer – his fantasies tend to be obvious and pedestrian, which makes him less appealing as a main character. Nothing comparable to the wild hijinks of the Danny Kaye original can be found here. Even the girl Walter pines after, played by Kristen Wiig, is sweet, approachable, and attainable. There’s none of the pathos that would have come from our hero going after a goddess way out of his league. In fact, it’s blindingly clear to the audience from Minute One that she likes him a lot. There’s a bit of Information Age humor in the idea that he’s fooling around on eHarmony, trying (and failing!) to send her online “winks” instead of just talking to her.
But pretty soon he does, and the daydreams featured so prominently in the film’s advertising simply vanish. Before you know it, Walter and his dream girl are hanging out, taking her son to the skateboard park, and forging a real connection. This process is well under way before he goes on the most absurdly contrived real-life adventure, crossing the globe to track down an elusive, eccentric photographer (Sean Penn, quite well used in a small but pivotal role) whose life of nonstop jet-setting discovery is the exact opposite of Walter’s dull cubicle stasis.
There’s some beautiful photography, a bit of amusement with a drunken helicopter pilot, a lot of really blatant product placement, a bit of nostalgia for the dying era of print journalism (and photographers who use film, don’t have cell phones, and communicate by telegraph) but not enough edge to make the movie qualify as either uproarious comedy or biting social commentary. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say about any of the topics it covers, including Walter’s daydreams; his wandering mind is straightforwardly presented as a bad habit he needs to grow out of – stop dreaming, start living – and that’s about it. It’s a pleasant enough diversion, and Ben Stiller was a perfect choice for the role, but it’s almost disturbing how quickly Walter Mitty stops being Walter Mitty.