1947’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was designed as nothing more than a showcase for Danny Kaye’s comedic talents, with the boring protagonist constantly daydreaming extended sequences wherein Kaye could play various wacky characters. Ben Stiller’s remake improves on the original by making Mitty’s actual story more interesting and rewarding, but the movie is still hindered by toothlessness and predictability.
Stiller plays Walter Mitty, a negative asset manager at LIFE Magazine during the publication’s final month. Mitty is a man who’s done nothing and achieved nothing. When he’s not shyly pining after his co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), he zones out into daydreams where he imagines being brave and adventurous.
Tasked with supplying the cover photo for the last issue, Mitty finds the negative is missing. Using the opportunity as a way to get closer to Cheryl, he undertakes a quest to track down the off-the-grid photographer of the shot (Sean Penn), leading Mitty across mountains, through oceans, away from volcano eruptions, and toward self-discovery.
The first third of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is stuffed with tiresome daydream sequences that add nothing to the movie and will only please fans of Stiller’s zanier work. As Mitty mounts his own adventure, though, he stops daydreaming them, and the movie becomes dramatically richer and more rewarding. By being given time to breathe, the awake Mitty is much more interesting than any of his imagined selves.
Stiller is smartly subdued in the titular role, toning down the spastic antics he’s often known for in favour of a subtle performance more akin to his recent work in Greenberg. Wiig also dials down her mania, resulting in the most defusing and charming character she’s played so far.
Good performances can’t make up for a lackluster script, though. Everyone in the film is so good-hearted that you naturally root for them all to succeed (except for the villainous downsizers, but even they have their redemptive moment by the end). By being so optimistic and hopeful, the movie loses easy laughs within its reach, sticking to a neo-Frank Capra tone that hinders as much as it helps. Worse still is that the plot ends up being so predictable, it’s often easy to guess, at any given moment, what the following scene or the next line of dialogue will be.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty does well with pretty much everything it does try, but by aiming low, it never impresses or surprises. Stiller and Wiig are enjoyable and you’ll leave the movie feeling generally satisfied, but it could have been much more rewarding if only the makers of the movie had not settled for simply being good.