Exquisitely produced, immaculately acted, and thoroughly uninvolving, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a perfect nothing of a movie. It takes James Thurber’s beloved short story about a man who spends all his time daydreaming of heroic feats in far-away places, and expands upon it in the most schematic, belabored way. This time out, Walter (Ben Stiller, who also directed) runs the photo archive at Life magazine. It’s a job most people would probably love to have, but in Stiller and screenwriter Scott Conrad’s vision, it’s the ideal purgatorial position for a submerged, extra-in-his-own-life type. In this iteration of the story, Walter is no longer a henpecked zhlub and more a lovestruck dreamer: He wants to go and speak to leggy, kindhearted fellow employee Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), but he can’t, much to the ridicule of the folks around him. Instead, he fantasizes about sweeping her off her feet as a lantern-jawed, Latin mountain climber who bursts through the walls of the office.
Meanwhile, the print magazine is going under, and a gaggle of evil corporate Internet douche bags are taking over, led by a menacingly bearded Adam Scott. (Insert funny dream sequence of Stiller and Scott having a superhero-level combat and chase through Manhattan.) While Walter’s New Beardo Overlords have no use for great photography, they do have a special cover shot planned for the final issue. They want a brilliant final image from their prized photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), a scruffy daredevil who is off having the life Walter secretly wants. Unfortunately, the mysterious photo — which Sean has told Walter represents “the quintessence of Life” (ha-ha, get it?) — is missing from his roll of negatives. And so, off Walter goes, on a real-life journey to track down the elusive, adventurous photographer and recover the image.
Up until this point, Stiller has created clear stylistic distinctions between Walter’s dream life and his real life — there’s no way not to, since the dreams are replete with expensive CGI and explosive, climactic face-offs. And when Walter finally goes off on his Excellent Adventure, Stiller shoots it as another one of his daydreams, accompanied by beautiful emo music and giant signs egging Walter on and everything happening swiftly, cleanly, as if by magic – like Wes Anderson directing a Nike commercial. And it’s a huge, almost catastrophic misstep. The adventure should resemble real life, not just another dream. Otherwise, there’s no sense of danger, and hence no reason to care. It’s such a simple, conceptual whiff — but it rots the entire movie from within. As Walter makes hairbreadth escapes from erupting volcanoes, falls into raging oceans filled with sharks, and runs into Afghan warlords, we feel alienated from the action, because it’s all been pitched at the level of unrealistic fantasy. The stakes haven’t been raised, so we never experience the thrill of the moment, a problem for a film that’s supposed to be all about living life to the fullest. The fake-o shark in Anchorman 2 is scarier.
On and on it goes, from set piece after set piece. All throughout, I kept thinking of Richard Attenborough’s signature line in Jurassic Park: “We’ve spared no expense.” Attenborough’s character had thought everything through – except the unpredictable. Stiller, for his part, seems to have banished the unpredictable entirely from his set. And so, he can’t keep his movie from being overtaken by the dinosaurs of tedium and … Anyway, I don’t exactly know where I’m going with this metaphor, but you get the idea.
Walter Mitty isn’t a terrible movie. It’s not even a bad one, really. It’s a pleasant enough diversion – Wiig is adorable, Scott is note-perfect, the music’s nice, it looks great, and you can marvel at the movie’s scope. Somebody clearly spent a lot of money on this thing, and it’s all up there on the screen. You want to applaud a comedy that dares to look good, that dares to have style and sweep instead of the point-and-shoot-and-improvise-and-stitch-it-together-in-post aesthetic of most comedies today. The movie is so eager to please, so desperate to be loved. But it forgets that in order to be loved, it needs to surprise us, to demonstrate some vulnerability, maybe even some imperfection. In short, it needs the one thing all the money in Hollywood can’t buy — a soul.