Here’s a secret: Stiller’s adaptation not bad
Ben Stiller, directing his first feature since 2008’s very funny Tropic Thunder, hasn’t made a great film with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but it’s a very pleasant diversion with a few genuine laughs, a sweet storyline, and some spectacular cinematography. Stiller’s film is the first to try to adapt James Thurber’s classic 1939 New Yorker short story of the same name since the 1947 Danny Kaye version. Here, though, working from a script by Steve Conrad (who also wrote the generally well-received The Pursuit of Happyness), Stiller doesn’t try to faithfully adapt the story so much as use elements of it to create an updated, brand new version.
Stiller and Conrad take the central character of Walter Mitty – in the Thurber story, an older, passive man prone to daydreams of excitement while out running mundane errands with his wife in small town Connecticut – and transport him to modern day Manhattan. Stiller, who also plays the title character, turns Walter into a single, reserved, 40-something photo technician at Life magazine, devoted to his job (he’s been there 16 years) and his family. The only thing he has in common with Thurber’s creation besides his name is that, like the Thurber character, Stiller’s Walter Mitty is also prone to elaborate daydreams (his family calls his reveries “zoning out”) at inopportune times, often causing him to miss trains or tune out when others are speaking to him.
The film examines how Walter begins to disengage from his go-to escape mechanism when confronted with a crisis at work – not only is Life about to downsize and become a digital-only platform (a timely premise for sure), but Walter, who is in charge of print photograph negatives, can’t find a crucial one from famed adventure photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) that is targeted for the magazine’s last print edition cover. This particular photo is described as being the “quintessence” of what Life (the magazine and the real thing) is all about (the magazine’s motto extolling the glory of discovery and amazement is constantly referenced throughout the film).
How Walter begins to open up to new possibilities and bring his daydreams to life in his quest to find the missing negative make up the bulk of the film. Side stories involving Walter’s crush on fellow Life employee Cheryl (Kristen Wiig, understated and lovely) and his mother (Shirley MacClaine) moving to a senior living residence are well handled, and help to establish Walter as a good-hearted, hard-working guy who has long been relegated to the background as others – particularly famed photographer Sean – live out their dreams.
Some of Walter’s fantasy sequences work better than others; they tend to work best when they are of a smaller scale. Walter’s daydreams involving impressing Cheryl and being lauded on the Conan O’Brien show, for example, are poignantly funny, as they allow us to glimpse Walter’s rich inner life as contrasted with his milquetoast personality. A scene in which Walter imagines a sharp retort to his smarmy boss (Adam Scott) is also smart and funny because it rings so true; who hasn’t had an “Oh, I should have said THAT” moment after a particularly annoying conversation? But as soon as the fantasy devolves into a long drawn out action set piece, it loses its charm.
And perhaps the weirdest sequence of the whole film is a Benjamin Button-like reverie Walter has in which he imagines aging backward and growing old with Cheryl. The scene feels like a bad Saturday Night Live sketch, and completely tonally off from the rest of the film. It definitely should have been left on the cutting room floor.
These problematic fantasy sequences are at least watchable in part, though, thanks to the excellent cinematography. The movie is beautifully shot, benefitting a great deal from cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh’s visually arresting presentations of Manhattan, Iceland, and British Columbia (which stands in for Greenland), all places Walter ends up in his search for the missing negative. Seeing Iceland on screen is a lot of fun, as it’s a gorgeous country that is seldom seen in American pictures, and Walter’s adventures there (including witnessing a volcanic eruption) make up some of the film’s best scenes.
The casting choices, too, help us overlook some of the films weaker aspects. Walter’s sister Odessa is played by Kathryn Hahn (Girls, Afternoon Delight), who is quickly becoming this generation’s Joan Cusack; she is vivid, fresh, and funny. Shirley MacClaine seems a bit underused as Odessa and Walter’s mother, but brings warm authenticity to her small role. And Adam Scott plays Ted, the clueless, condescending new boss, to the hilt; managers like Ted are the reason people quit when new management takes over. Stiller himself dials down his sometimes manic presence to show us a man who has suppressed his own desires for the good of his family for so long that he nearly has forgotten who he really is, and surprises himself with his capacity for being fully present in his own life.
But casting Sean Penn as the rugged, brilliant photographer Sean O’Connell (first name a coincidence? I think not) is the film’s most brilliant decision; using Penn for this role is a sly wink to the audience, as Penn’s animosity towards celebrity photographers has been well documented. The film even has a scene in which O’Connell can take a shot of a lifetime, but instead lowers his camera, explaining to Walter that sometimes he wants moments just to himself, without a record. If that’s not Penn using this picture as a platform to air his grievances, I don’t know what it is. On the plus side, though, Penn and Stiller have terrific chemistry, and the one scene they appear in together is a joy to watch, as the two play off each other – and their screen personas – with humor and sincere respect.
The film take a bit of liberty with the accuracy of timing of actual events; in real life, the last print copy of Life appeared in spring 2007, with the online version going live in 2009, and the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull erupted in spring, 2010, so these events did not happen within weeks or months of each other, as the film implies. But in a film about imagination, such artistic license is forgivable, especially when placing these events close to each other makes thematic sense, as happens here.
By far the most annoying aspect of the entire film, though, is its blatant and often heavy-handed product placement. Just as it seems like Penn is using his character to make a statement, the film itself is so overrun with product endorsements that they often distract the viewer from the story at hand. From the near worshipful treatment of Life magazine, to an ongoing story thread involving Papa John’s pizza (which at least ties in a bit with Walter’s back story – but do we really need a ten second close-up of a Papa John’s cup?), to what amounts to a virtual two hour commercial for eHarmony, the film has the air of something created with generous funding from these companies, which may or may not be true, but, given the amount of product exposure, the viewer sure will wonder. The eHarmony bit is particularly annoying; on more than one occasion, a character expounds on exactly WHY eHarmony is the best dating site available (although once we finally meet the eHarmony customer service agent with whom Walter has been talking throughout the film, some annoyance dissipates, since that casting move is fun and clever).
But if you take these product endorsements with a grain of salt and don’t let them bother you too much, you will be rewarded with a thoroughly entertaining picture that you can’t help but enjoy, in spite of its shortcomings. Sure, the picture rates a little high on the schmaltz scale, but what’s wrong with a little schmaltz now and then? Cynicism can be exhausting. There are certainly worse things a film can do than to remind us, as this one does, yes, repeatedly, but also quite eloquently, to seize the day and be fully engaged and present in our lives.
So after the dessert is finished tonight, head out to the Cineplex, where everyone from the 11-year-old, the 17-year-old, the 35-year-old and the 86-year-old is sure to be entertained by this picture. And if you need a snack after, you can always hit up Papa John’s.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens in Bay Area theaters today.