Actor Ben Stiller is well suited to play Walter Mitty, a daydreamer who often spaces out to the point that he neglects to pay attention to the physical world around him. Stiller has got the right amount of boyish charm, and he capably comes across as a nerd-do-well. (He’s certainly better at the role than Jim Carrey would have been if he were cast, as was reportedly planned when a remake was first being considered in 1994.) And yet, something doesn’t quite work in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, his remake of the 1947 film about the character from a James Thurber short story.
In a nice homage to the dying newspaper and magazine industry, the film commences with a scene that’s all too familiar to the modern-day journalist. Several clueless cutthroat businessmen arrive at the Life magazine office where Walter works to tell him and his co-workers that the next issue they print will be the last. Photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), a renegade guy who still shoots on 35mm film and mails in his photos from exotic, far-away places, has sent over the negative that’s to be the cover image. Problem is, Walter, the guy in charge of negative acquisitions, can’t find the image. So he sets out to find Sean instead and embarks upon the kind of wild adventure that he previously only dreamed of. He tracks Sean to remote places in Europe in the attempt to find the negative and give it to his nasty new boss Ted (Adam Scott).
While there’s nothing particularly wrong with the movie, the film comes off as a bit too much like Forrest Gump. Like Gump, it’s a safe, feel-good story about a man who arrives at some kind of self-realization after years of playing only dreaming about what he could achieve. One reviewer noted that the movie comes across as an extended Nike ad; that’s certainly a valid criticism. It’s also not very funny. Walter’s romance with co-worker Cheryl (Kirsten Wiig) isn’t fully developed and neither is his relationship with his mother (Shirley MacLaine). And the scene in which Walter imagines himself as a Benjamin Button-like character who ages in reverse is simply ludicrous.
Coming on the heels of Stiller’s last film, the terrific 2008 satire Tropic Thunder, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty just seems a bit flat.