It’s dismaying and disheartening to witness Ben Stiller’s failed attempt at reworking and outdoing the story of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” With Norman Z. McLeod’s 1947 adaptation (from a short story by James Thurber) brandishing numerous flaws and plenty of room for improvement, it’s especially unacceptable that Stiller would be unable to best the previous incarnation – or at least match it. There’s no singing, very little slapstick, and seemingly limitless avenues of adventure to explore, but the frequent fantasy is almost always indistinguishable from the reality – which makes the fantasy not inspiring enough and the reality far too unperceivable.
Forgettable Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) frequents eHarmony.com in the hope of “winking” at recently hired coworker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig). The problem is that he hasn’t accomplished anything noteworthy or remarkable with which to fortify his dating profile. He’s been a negative asset manager at “Life Magazine” for sixteen years, anonymously prepping photographs for inclusion, primarily from the unpredictably wild war photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). When the declining company is acquired, the final issue of the magazine is slated for two-and-a-half weeks, with the meticulously bearded Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) serving as the managing director (or hatchet man) of the transition to an online outlet.
Mitty is given a new roll of film from O’Connell, with explicit instructions that negative #25, a quintessential image that represents his body of work, be used for the final cover. Despite careful handling, Mitty is unable to locate #25, leading him on a harrowing journey around the world and through treacherous landscapes to hunt down the unreachable photographer, trusting that the reckless man still possesses the missing negative. His trek leads him from Greenland, where he dives into freezing, shark-infested water from a helicopter piloted by an overgrown drunkard during sketchy weather conditions, to skateboarding across miles of downward sloping asphalt to an erupting Icelandic volcano, to the lower Himalayas and ungoverned Afghanistan.
His impressive odyssey is plagued by a violent bar fight, a ravenous underwater predator, horny Chilean deckhands, and the elusive ghost cat at 18,000 feet up a mountainside. But none of this compares to his constant daydreaming, in which he stands up for himself to an uncaring, bullying executive – by trading verbal insults or combating through the Time & Life Building and transversely over the bustling streets of New York, like something out of “Spider-Man,” augmented by gravity-defying computer graphics and exaggerated destruction. His continually wandering mind is intended to be the focus of his alternate life, but is rapidly dwarfed by the genuine perils he faces while following flimsy clues in search of Sean. Incidentally, he builds not only a more seductive dating profile, but also an inspiring resume.
Included in the zoning out misadventures is an underdeveloped love story with Cheryl, a subplot of Mitty’s slowly dwindling bank account, a sense of unfulfilled successes to embolden his father’s pride, losing faith in himself, and the idea of a disconnected man struggling to interact effectively with humankind (not unlike this year’s “Her”). There’s also a peculiar, out-of-place spoof of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” But the result is a sloppy blend of half-hearted, rushed fantasy and unrealistic, unenthusiastic action (momentarily lifted by daredevilry-infused reveries with peppy music, though muddied by plot inconsistencies and poor editing). Gone is the truly oppressed, belittled, harried man from the source material, a target for mistreatment and a vicarious channel for flamboyant revenge and triumph.
– The Massie Twins