About two-thirds of the way through The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, we finally meet the film's first interesting character. Sean Penn’s few minutes as a renowned photographer is better than all the time we have to suffer with the dour Mitty (Ben Stiller), who assesses negatives in the photo department of Life Magazine.
When we meet him, Mitty is troubleshooting his online dating account with an eHarmony rep and bemoaning his lack of world travel (which would of course make him more of a catch, according to the rep). A journal of blank pages reinforces the point: Walter Mitty doesn't go anywhere or do much, so rather than get off his duff, he spends his time daydreaming about himself as a hero (a habit that gets him rightfully mocked, except that we're supposed to sympathize with Mitty because only the movie's jerks do the mocking). Recently, these fantasies have included Cheryl (Kristin Wiig), a new colleague with whom Mitty is infatuated, and whose purpose is to admire Mitty's self-styled amazingness.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty shares the same name as James Thurber's 1939 short story about a man who daydreams himself into heroic situations while his wife is at the hairdresser. (It was first adapted to the screen as a 1947 film starring Danny Kaye.) Whereas Thurber's charming, concise story was about a man using his imagination to escape the humdrum of daily life, Stiller's version of Mitty isn't trying to escape — he's trying to show how awesome he is. He is, arguably, a perfect reflection of the worst in our social-media-soaked times. If only the movie intended him as commentary.
Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation), sporting a too-creepy beard, plays a slimy corporate hatchet man who informs the staff at Life that they'll be downsized and that the print edition will be no more. For the final issue, photographer Sean O'Connell (Penn) has sent in a sheet of negatives, including the one he is recommending for the cover. Except that the prized shot has gone missing. To find the negative, Mitty endeavors to locate the globetrotting O'Connell.
Even as it bounces Mitty all over the world, the movie is arid. There’s no sense of self-discovery or joy in Mitty — he’s just doing things he wasn’t doing before, and Stiller rarely cracks a smile along the way. Stiller, for all his gifts at comedy, has a tendency to come across as smug, as if to let us know he's much cooler than the character he's playing. For Mitty, the value in going to new places isn't in the enjoyment; not once do we catch him having any fun. Instead, film insinuates that traveling is a means to an end — go more places, earn more bragging rights. And have something to add to your dating site profile.
Big-sounding pop songs by Arcade Fire and Of Monsters and Men are Mitty's soundtrack as he ventures from New York to Greenland to Iceland and beyond. It's easy to see why they were picked: Each has sections of multitracked uplift, the sonic match to Stiller’s visual bloat as the film’s themes are revealed in self-help phrases on the mountainsides and buildings that surround Mitty.
Much is made of Mitty having been a skateboarder as a teen, and that he had to give it up when he was obliged to provide for his widowed mother. But that doesn't explain why Mitty is such a pill. It can't be corporate culture, because the movie makes clear that Mitty is good at what he does, and we can only presume that's because he enjoys his work.
Mitty isn't aspiring to break out of his shell so he can enjoy life; he's aspiring to be a badass, which makes his final line upon seeing the magazine cover so full of false modesty. A better reimagining of Thurber's story would have looked into Mitty's mind and soul and made us care about his growth. Instead we get feel-good bromides that are better suited to cynical commercials imploring us to "break free" and buy whatever it is they're selling. Stiller has quite the accomplishment to add to his filmography: He's made a soulless, joyless film about the liberation of the soul and the discovery of joy.