Secret Life of Walter Mitty: World Premiere

As directed and acted by Ben Stiller, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a peculiar and ultimately disappointing remake.  The update lacks the easygoing charm and screwball comedy of the original, which was one of Danny Kaye’s most popular films. Instead, this version opts for a more earnest and obvious fantasy.

Review of Danny Kaye’s charming version

It took years for this version to be made, with countless of actors attached and then quickly unattached. For a long time, it was going to be a New Line project with Jim Carrey, then Owen Wilson, and finally Sacha Baron Cohen. The parade of directors who showed interest in helming the remake was equally impressive, including Steven Spielberg.

This visually playful tale goes out of its way to stir its target audience with obvious life-inspiring messages and cheap emotions, which are not worthy of Stiller as a director or an actor. Stiller, never a sentimental performer, is a very different actor than all of the aforementioned actors. When you cast Stiller, he comes with a baggage, an established screen image that here works against the movie’s dubious ideological intent.

World premiering at the 2013 New York Film Fest as its prestigious center-piece, “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” will be released by Fox on Christmas Day, December 25. Likely to get mixed to negative critical response, “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is arguably the weakest American premiere shown at this year’s festival (the other two are “Captain Phillips,” which served as opening night, and Spike Jonze’s “Hers,” its closer).

In his adaptation, scribe Steven Conrad deviates from the source material (all but 21/2 pages in print) and the previous 1947 movie, said to be one of mogul Samuel Goldwyn’s favorite and proudest productions. Conrad has shrewdly kept the core idea of how fantasy and daydreaming can hold emancipating powers in a mundane life, while grounding the tale in more realistic and immediate concerns, such as downsized economy, changing pop culture, new social media.

A bright, alert, post-modern actor, Stiller restructures the famous tale to suit his specifications, turning it into a star vehicle, rather than servicing the fabulist material, which still holds potential allure for contemporary viewers. Stiller plays his (anti)hero as a frustrated ordinary man, who knows he is capable of doing more, namely, be the kind of man he had always dreamed of.

Strangely enough, the story is less of a fantasy or screwball comedy, as it was in 1947, and more of a serious, often solemn meditation about an existential crisis of a man living a life of quiet desperation.

Thurber’s indelible short story, which first appeared in 1939 in The New Yorker, was a product of its time, a farcical satire of American heroism, and so was the movie, reflecting the optimism of the immediate post-WWII era.

Conrad’s script centers on a the titular employee, stuck in the photo department of Life magazine; never mind that Life ceased publication over a decade ago! When the venue is taken over by some greedy execs, its fate is sealed with the impending final print issue. Among many negative effects, the acquisition means that many of the staff workers would lose their jobs.

Walter’s wake-up call is a result of attraction to a girl. In an ordinary New York apartment, the shy Walter stares at the eHarmony dating page of his co-worker Cheryl (comedienne Kristen Wiig), debating whether to make the first move. Walter daydreams about a spectacular way to impress Cheryl. The question is, will the timid Walter be able to seize the day and “Just Do It,” which serves as the film’s overall motto.

Stashed away at his desk, he is surrounded with camera negatives which are like museum pieces because few people still shoot on celluloid. During his 16 years of loyal duties, Walter had been clinging to the magazine’s campaign: “to see the world and things dangerous to come to…”

Assigned to track down the “quintessential” cover image from the magazine’s star photographer (ironically cast by Sean Penn), Walter goes to Greenland, of all places. The new location offers opportunities for derring-do, jumping out of helicopters, swimming with sharks, skateboarding toward a volcano.

Walter drifts into his hallucinations, showing growing excitement into his daily routine over the course of the film. Early on, a wall of the Life building crumbles away to reveal Walter as a rugged mountain climber, declaring love for Cheryl via “poetry falcon.” However, by the time Walter is in sub-zero seas, due to good usage of CGI, it’s hard to distinguish between Walter’s fantasy and his reality.

The most significant relationship in the tale is between two males. Walter strikes up a friendship with the site’s technical support agent (Patton Oswalt), who calls Walter during his global odyssey. Oswalt is Walter’s virtual sidekick on a quest to transform himself from an ordinary to an extraordinary man. That he succeeds by reassuring Walter that he resembles Indiana Jones and one of the Strokes singer only shows how obvious and desperate the narrative is in being poignant and relevant.

The take’s two other femmes have smaller parts to play. Walter’s mother (a suitably irritating Shirley MacLaine) and sister (Kathryn Hahn) try to dominate Walter, who resists being the timid nebbish they expect-—and want–him to be.

Walter’s world travels to Greenland, Iceland and Noshaq mountain, Afghanistan provide exotic backdrops, adding much color to the proceedings. Relying on fading in and out of Walter’s reveries, Stiller shows an inventive way of integrating his text, from the opening credits to SMS message into Walter’s various environments.

The production values are sleek and polished in every department, though it’s hard not to notice the extensive products placement throughout the film.

Likely to disappoint critics, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is too amorphous to may please even Ben Stiller’s hardcore fans, who may wonder why he was so anxious to make a picture that doesn’t even service well (to say the least) his idiosyncratic screen persona.