From the original 1947 film starring Danny Kaye to the remake directed and featuring Ben Stiller, the name Walter Mitty has been synonymous with a certain kind of person, defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “an ordinary, often ineffectual person who indulges in fantastic daydreams of personal triumphs.”
In the new film Mitty (Stiller) is a 42-year-old behind-the-scenes “Life” employee who spaces out so much his new boss calls him Major Tom. He’s a hard working but invisible sixteen-year vet of the magazine’s photo department even his official title, negative asset manager, sounds Kafkaesque.
He’s secretly in love with co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) but while he dithers with an eHarmony representative (Paton Oswalt) regarding contacting her on-line (even though her office is just down the hall) the magazine is sold.
“This month’s issue will be the last before going on line,” says smarmy corporate lackey (Adam Scott) and soon, he adds, “some employees will be deemed ‘non vital.’”
It looks like Walter’s head might be on the corporate chopping block when he loses a negative from legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). The picture is pegged to be the last “Life” cover ever, and if Walter can’t locate it, he will lose his job.
To find the picture he sets his daydreams aside and enacts “Life’s” motto, to see the world. His travels take him around the world and, at the same timer, closer to Cheryl’s heart.
Although Stiller appears in almost every frame of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” there’s no hint of the “There’s Something About Mary” Ben Stiller here at all. His take on Mitty is understated. The character’s moments get bigger and bigger as Walter begins to control his destiny, but Stiller never lets go of the core of what makes Walter, Walter. It’s his most subdued performance ever, and it looks good on him.
Wiig also displays her sweet side. There’s not a “little hand” (Dooneese from “S.N.L.’s” Lawrence Welk Show”) or bit of sketch comedy in the performance at all.
Both are quietly funny for the most part—a “Benjamin Button” daydream is the closest thing to punchline-setup in the movie. “My little heart is no bigger than a quarter,” says a mini-Walter, “but it’s filled more than Fort Knox.”
And, because this is a big Christmas release there is an unexpected superhero style action sequence where Walter Mitty tears up Manhattan in defense of his Stretch Armstrong doll, but for the most part it is sweet but occasionally twee.
The embossed “That is the Purpose of Life” slogan on an airport runway blurs the line between magic realism and silly sentimentalism but Stiller the director mostly subverts the mundane with the surreal as though he is following Walter’s own ABCs of everything you want in a man (or in this case director), to be Adventurous, Brave and Creative.