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).
But the upcoming demise of the magazine’s print edition disrupts Mitty’s reveries, especially when he can’t find the only copy of the proposed cover image, taken by maverick photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). It’s not on the roll of negatives Sean submitted, and Sean himself has gone off the grid. After 16 years of not losing a single photo, Mitty isn’t going to let this one get away. So he must leave behind the comfort of his work routine and idle fancies and track down the elusive, fearless, and adrenaline-addicted O’Connell.
Though getting some tips from Google, Mitty for the most part must search the old-fashioned way — in the real world. Guided by clues suggested by three seemingly random images found on O’Connell’s negative roll, he takes off into the unknown. What follows combines elements of “Blowup” (1966) with Philip K. Dick’s short story “Paycheck” as the obscure hints take Mitty from a dive bar in Greenland to a volcano in Iceland and at last to the Himalayas — locations made luminous by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. Mitty’s adventures eclipse his daydreams — which is not hard, since the daydreams are humdrum, though a Benjamin Button scenario equals in freakiness anything in “Zoolander” (2001). His mission also vindicates the old analog way of doing things, not just in journalism, but as a way to live.
The quest ends in a surprise Capra-esque resolution, which both satisfies and cloys. Nonetheless, this “Mitty” does justice to the film’s oft-quoted Life magazine motto: “To see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to . . . to see and be amazed.” These days that sounds like a job for the Internet, but as Stiller suggests, it is also why we watch movies.