Hollywood has been actively trying to remake “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” for nearly two decades, with names like Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Gore Verbinski, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and Sacha Baron Cohen all attached at some point in one capacity or another. It’s curious, then, that the way the movie finally ended up getting made was to not remake it all. Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” doesn’t really resemble James Thurber’s 1939 short story (or the 1947 film version with Danny Kaye) that much apart from its daydreaming title character, although that was probably for the best. While Stiller has retained the core spirit of the original story, he’s produced a more modernized, feel-good road movie that’s got a bit of a “Forrest Gump” vibe to it without quite the same heavy-handedness.
Stiller stars as Walter Mitty, a timid photo editor at Life Magazine who has a tendency to zone out, getting lost in elaborate daydreams where he’s as adventurous and brave as he wishes he could be in real life. Walter can’t even muster up the courage to speak with office crush Cheryl (Kristin Wiig), and he’s running out of time after it’s revealed that the magazine is transitioning from print to a digital-only publication, with layoffs imminent. When a new film roll from renowned photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) arrives at the office one day, Walter discovers that negative #25 – the one intended for the cover of Life’s final issue – is missing. With his condescending boss (Adam Scott) breathing down his neck, Walter embarks on the first adventure of his life to track down Sean, and hopefully, the missing photo too.
Though the film’s Big Message isn’t quite as profound as you might expect, there’s something to really admire about its contagious optimism about the joys of life, especially during the typically melancholy awards season. It’s sweet without feeling overly saccharine, and while that’s partly due to Steve Conrad’s screenplay, Stiller’s contributions behind and in front of the camera shouldn’t be overlooked. The actor has built a career out of playing the likable Everyman, and he turns in yet another solid performance here. Penn and Patton Oswalt (as an eHarmony customer service rep heard mostly over the phone) are also great in smaller roles, but Wiig’s love interest dips in and out of the movie too frequently to leave much of an impression.
What’s most impressive about Stiller’s involvement, however, is how much he’s evolved as a filmmaker since “Tropic Thunder,” especially in regards to the fantasy sequences. They may not serve much purpose to the story, with the exception of the “Major Tom” scene (which feels like something out of a Cameron Crowe movie), but they’re fun, surrealistic interludes that boast some amazing visuals. In fact, the entire movie is gorgeous, though it helps that Walter’s travels provide cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh with such amazing landscapes like Greenland, Iceland and the Himalayas. If there’s any complaint about the film, it’s that the story is incredibly predictable from start to finish. That will likely prove to be a sticking point in its bid for awards consideration, but even if it doesn’t get an invite to next year’s Oscars, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is an enjoyable family comedy that will find its share of admirers this holiday season.