Heart warming and optimistic or formulaic and hackneyed, this determinedly not-a-remake of the 1947 Danny Kaye vehicle sees Ben Stiller musing on the travails of modern life and how they affect hero Walter Mitty.
Kaye’s Walter immersed himself in living fantasies that transported him to a landscape far removed from the one he inhabited – Stiller’s version is a man out of his time and headed for the scrapheap. A photographic archivist for Life magazine Walter sees his world shifting like quicksand beneath his feet. An analogue man in a digital age he seeks to preserve what he thinks is important while figuring out how to woo the woman of his dreams (Kristen Wiig). Stiller takes Walter away from the original, painting a backdrop of inevitable, seismic change against which Mitty’s daydreams are played out.
But the adventures resemble just so many stitched-together vignettes. Intriguing and impressive, yes. Representing a cohesive whole, no. Stiller has long been considered one of Hollywood’s most original talents but there is a nagging feeling here that he was in some way afraid of stepping into Kaye’s shoes.
Thus the film avoids the remake route, becoming a vehicle for Stiller. What it lacks is an edge – possibly what Stiller as star and director was keen to avoid. Instead it ruminates on the nature of the world’s workers and how disenfranchised they feel as the planet speeds towards a seemingly brighter future. Walter cares about his role, his profession, his part in the Big Plan. But should he? Might it be better if he gave it all up? The film streams with an optimistic message that people who care will survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Part of that comes via the inspired casting of Sean Penn as a star Life photojournalist. Seeing him partnered with Stiller is a revelation. Anyone expecting a standard Stiller flick will not find it with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. What they get instead is a whimsical journey that is frequently funny but never quite hilarious.