Based on the classic James Thurber short story, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is about a daydreamer, and very little about that sounds especially cinematic. So what Ben Stiller (who directs and stars as Mitty) and screenwriter Steve Conrad have done is added in a couple of action sequences that are meant to show us that Walter is a man in search of high adventure outside of his job for Life magazine as the receiver and processor rolls of films from adventuring photojournalist Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn). In addition to wanting to be a man of action, Walter also wants to be a man of passionate love; he has a crush on co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), and he's effortless to make his feelings known or even ask her out.
The very spark that is missing from Walter's life is also missing from the film about him. There are a few truly nice, touching moments, but more often than not, it's just a series of contrived moments to bring the real-life version of Walter more in line with the fictional one in his head. It's a great concept, but a limp execution.
I can't imagine the trumped-up action sequences are going to work for anyone, especially the one involving Walter essentially snowboarding on a piece of asphalt down a New York street, zipping between cabs. Walter has been sent what it turns out will be the image for the final print edition of Life, which is being shut down by corporate lackies, led by Adam Scott's bearded Ted Hendricks, who is just pure overdone villainy, especially in the way he looks down at Walter and his place in the organization. But Walter believes he has lost the negative, and in a rare moment of inspiration and divergence from his life of routine, he hops on a plane and heads for where he thinks O'Connell will be, a journey that takes him to Iceland.
One of the film's best fantasy-based moments involves being in a rundown bar in Iceland where Walter sees a vision of Cheryl singing to him from the stage, which inspires him to hop on a helicopter piloted by a blindingly drunk pilot to head for a ship where O'Connell might be. In fact, once the fantastical moments become more tempered (and eventually non existent), the film gets better.
Intermittently throughout THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, Walter receives calls from a customer service rep for eHarmony (voiced charmingly by Patton Oswalt), who wants to see if he can beef up Walter's profile and make him seem more appealing. The sequence are the most grounded moments in Walter's life because they make him come to terms with how shamefully stilted his life has always been. But as the film progresses, these calls become easier to deal with since his adventures are mounting, and the question of interesting places he's been in his lifetime becomes easier to answer. Walter's lifelong predicament is not entirely his fault as he has been the only truly stable one in his family--sister Odessa (Kathryn Hahn) and mother Edna (Shirley MacLaine)--and he's had no choice but to be caretaker (emotional and financial) for both of them since he was in his late teens.
Connecting with Penn's character isn't the end of the film, but it is probably the best sequence and one I wish could have been more built upon. In fact, the actual conclusion to the film is so lacking in sizzle or emotional satisfaction that I barely remember it. What I do recall is how breathtaking THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY looks, thanks to some truly awe-inspiring cinematographer from Stuart Dryburgh. There are times when I wish I could have turned the sound off and simply enjoyed the view. But then Walter is forced to run away from an erupting volcano, and it ruined my fun (that is not a fantasy sequence, by the way).
I'm probably not making this seem like as close a call as it was for me. One Stiller the director and Conrad the writer peel away the big-budget visual effects moments of daydreaming, the film tends to work more often than it doesn't. I realize this is a film about a man who daydreams, but Walter's escapist moments are so overblown, it seems like Stiller is trying to impress us with how much money he was given to spend on what is essentially a simply, intimate story about a man breaking out of a world that is smothering him to death. THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is about a man coming to realize that no one is going to save him from his life of self-imposed misery but himself. But he soon comes to realize that he doesn't have to be a superhero to do so. It's a solid life lesson, I guess; benefitting who, I'm not quite sure.
Considering that the original Thurber story is only a few paragraphs long, Conrad's resulting story is actually pretty good stuff, from the lamenting over the death of print magazines and negative-based photography to the exotic settings that make up Walter's journey/escape to the possibility of romance, the film is peppered with good moments, some bordering on great. But so much of what Stiller is doing, in both performance and direction, feels like he's holding back what could be a pure emotional wallop about the human condition. What's most frustrating about the film is that you can almost see greatness materialize, but much like Walter's daydreams, they evaporate just as you are just about ready to grasp them.