Based on James Thurber's 1939 short story of the same name, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) is Hollywood's second attempt at a big-screen adaptation (the 1947 version was panned by Thurber himself). The story's original concept is simple: Walter, married and middle-aged, lets his imagination wander at the slightest provocation. "Maybe this will refresh your memory," his wife snaps, whereupon Mitty imagines himself the star of a sensational courtroom drama. "You're driving too fast," his wife says, and suddenly he's powering up a Navy hydroplane at sea.
It's just the sort of amusing premise perfect for a short story and terrible for a feature film. For three or four scenes, the 2013 movie is charming, with Ben Stiller's Mitty reimagining himself as a kitten-saving super hero or snow-swept adventurer. As a real-life "negative asset manager" for LIFE Magazine, Mitty's bouts of idealized adventure will make even the most sullen 9-to-5 American smile.
But then Mitty carries on past the 20-minute mark, and the film loses steam faster than
Mitty's lidless coffee mug. We get a predictable object of desire (Bridesmaids' Kristen Wiig, playing more "aw shucks" than "back off"), a surprisingly low-stakes quest (find the missing photograph!), and a movie desperate to fill another dozen scenes with no help from the simple source material. Stiller—who also directed the film—asks an odd, eventually fatal question: if Mitty's daydreams are so much fun, wouldn't seeing the man actually live out his imagination be even better?
It's a disastrous move. The quirky familiarity of the daydreamed adventures lose all appeal when Stiller's Mitty actually lives them. The movie abandons the very thing that made the original story so fun: we're no longer grinning at a man's private thought life—we're watching a clichéd Hollywood montage of scaling mountains and flying planes. Worse, the film descends into a bland cheeriness as uninteresting as it is annoying. With the original short story, the fun and games were accompanied by a subtle sadness. Here was a whimsical man whose fantasies of escapade were relegated to forgotten daydreams throughout an ordinary day. The story was both a celebration of human creativity and a tragedy of how life's daily grind can beat down childhood ambitions. There was something encouraging about the short story's Mitty, but there was also something sad, introspective, and perceptive.
In contrast, the 2013 Mitty wants us only to believe that a little enthusiasm and a little luck will make everything right. You'll live your dreams, win the girl, and find the elusive photograph. I'm happy for the 2013 Mitty. I'm glad the film lived such a happy life, and that it found everything it was looking for. I just find it hopelessly dull. Oh well: I'm sure it won't mind missing my next birthday.