There's a little Walter Mitty in all of us, and less on the screen in Ben Stiller's take on James Thurber's short story about the ultimate daydreamer.
By imposing carpe diem purpose on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty — although no deeper than a Nike ad — Stiller turns Thurber's everyman into every man for himself. If you have a dream, get your own movie. Little about this one is embraceable or teachable, and nothing swells your chest with emotion. It's the sort of oppressively pop cultured pep rally that Thurber's Walter might have faced an imaginary firing squad to escape.
Stiller plays Walter, so one problem with the movie is evident right off the bat. In such commercialized circumstances Stiller isn't an actor expressing much beyond detached bemusement without appearing to strain. Walter needs him to play complexly inferior, requiring more than setting up the character with a mean boss (Adam Scott), and a crush on a co-worker (Kristen Wiig, performing a shade above bland). The movie needs a hero who can't win, as in Thurber's story, but either ego or the studio won't let Stiller do that.
Scripted by Steve Conrad with major embellishments and soulless uplift, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty recasts the title character as a "negative assets manager" for Life magazine — nice word plays — meaning he processes photo negatives. Only one photographer stills shoots on film, the intrepid Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), whose intercontinental mobility in hindsight is one of the movie's biggest fantasies.
Sean's latest roll of film is missing frame No. 25, which he insists to be the cover of Life's final print issue. "The quintessence of life," is all he'll say to describe it. As usual, Sean is incommunicado in remote corners of the world. Walter summons the courage to track him down and find the photo, hoping to impress single mom Cheryl Melhoff (Wiig), and a sympathetic E-Harmony customer assistance rep (Patton Oswalt).
Using Sean's cryptic photos as clues — their explanations are cheats, even in a fantasy like this — Walter scours Iceland, Greenland and the Afghan Himalayas, facing a volcano, warlords and a shark, among other digitized wonderments. Each crisis faced makes him stronger, more reckless, to the point at which Oswalt's character describes him as a cross between Indiana Jones and the Stripes' lead singer. At which point daydreaming isn't necessary.
Those fantasies are the lone aspect of Stiller's movie improving upon Danny Kaye's 1947 version, and the imagination of Thurber's readers. Parts of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty equal Inception in making dreams real and The Avengers in sheer CGI bombast, like an asphalt-churning chase on Manhattan streets. But it's all so flashily packaged that this seems less like a movie, and more like a 2-hour Super Bowl commercial selling self-help snake oil.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.