Critics so far have roughed up Ben Stiller’s adaptation of James Thurber’s 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and it seems bound for the same film maudit status as his equally divisive “The Cable Guy” (1996). But where many disliked “Cable Guy” because it was too dark, “Mitty” has been criticized for being too light (not to mention straying far from the source material). True, it can be sentimental, but it is not frivolous. Its subject is no less than the fate of the imagination in the digital age, and as such the film serves as an intriguing complement to another film opening today: Spike Jonze’s “Her.”
As in the original story, and the 1947 adaptation with Danny Kaye, the mousy Mitty (Stiller, whose hyper masochism has mellowed into a detached melancholy) indulges in elaborate daydreams to escape from an oppressive reality. In this version Mitty works in film processing (he’s the “negative assets manager”) at a barely breathing Life magazine. Holed up in his rabbit warren of an office, he satisfies his secret desires not by going online (though there is a recurring eHarmony bit that should have been cut), but by using his imagination. Mostly he dreams up heroic fantasies involving co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig, whose talents are wasted in a superficial role), or jousting, superhero-style, with the new downsizing coordinator, Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott, with one of the most annoying, malevolent beards in movie history).