Ben Stiller’s gorgeous conversion melodrama The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (PG-13) still contains the DNA of the original James Thurber short story – in which a hapless everyman dreams outsize fantasies of a rich and adventurous life – but that genetic material has been artificially engineered to create something unnaturally grand. Stiller’s Mitty is a nebbishy “negative asset manager” for Life magazine, tasked with safeguarding a prized image by a legendary photographer (Sean Penn) that will be used for the cover of Life’s final print edition. Trouble is, Walter can’t find the image or its creator – and his hunt takes him literally around the world, where he inadvertently discovers the robust life he thought was beyond him.
Stiller has conceived this third-generation Mitty (which has much more in common with the 1947 Danny Kaye adaptation than Thurber’s slim story) as an inspirational tale of the buttoned-down man who needs to get out of his own way to succeed in life. His metaphor of choice is travel: Walter’s search for the image allows cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh to build a travelogue reel of faraway lands that would be at home in the pages of, well, Life magazine. Unfortunately that epic journey – by plane, helicopter, boat and skateboard – is paired to a weak script that offers a predictable series of revelations, life lessons and small victories. Worse, the filmmakers do themselves a disservice by shooting Manhattan in a dynamic fashion that makes Walter seem like kind of a shmuck for failing to realize the glories of the world right outside his window. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is beautiful to look at, but ultimately hollow: a picture postcard with not much written on it.
(IMAGE: Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.)