Unwitty 'Mitty' misses point of Thurber's fantasies

  • Walter Mitty (director Ben Stiller) tracks down reclusive Life magazine photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

    Walter Mitty (director Ben Stiller) tracks down reclusive Life magazine photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

Updated 12/24/2013 8:01 AM

At the end of Ben Stiller's botched "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," the title character no longer needs daydreams and stops having them, exactly the opposite of James Thurber's seminal 1939 short story in which a rich imagination and dreams were enshrined as indispensable survival tools.

Here, fantasies are merely crutches rendered irrelevant by self-actualization.


Few things in this comedy make any internal sense. Sean Penn's Sean O'Connell has to be the most incompetent, unreliable professional photographer in journalism.

He hides valuable photos on deadlines, can't be reached by any regular means of communication and instead of snapping the shutter at the perfect moment, prefers to savor a passing moment of beauty for his own selfish gratification, and give his employer, Life magazine, sloppy seconds.

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a disappointment, an often confusing and silly contrivance of an unbecoming-of-age comedy based on Thurber's literary work (adapted into a 1947 vehicle for star Danny Kaye.)

To escape the humdrumness of his existence, the henpecked, cowed Mitty would daydream, imagining himself to be a skilled surgeon, fighter pilot or assassin, all inspired by small tasks or objects.

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Obviously, the simplicity of Thurber's story required beefing up to become a feature, but in the beefing-up process, Steve Conrad's screenplay has lost the meat of its message.

This movie, directed by Stiller, presents Mitty (Stiller) as a "negative assets" manager at Life magazine, undergoing layoffs as bearded corporate toadies led by Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) supervise them.

Mitty pins his hopes on finding the perfect final cover for Life. Life's mysterious, legendary photographer O'Connell (Penn) sends Mitty a perfect photo. Except Mitty can't find the negative.

When Mitty can't reach O'Connell by phone or email, he simply jets off to Greenland to search for him -- without telling anyone at Life. In the middle of looming layoffs.


Mitty jumps to Iceland and other exotic locations, swimming with sharks, skateboarding next to exploding volcanoes, jumping from helicopters and doing everything he only dreamed of before.

There doesn't appear to be any reason for Mitty to have been so intimidated by life. The movie botches making his caring, semisweet mom (Shirley MacLaine) into the overbearing parent she should have been to give Mitty a reason for being milque-toasted.

His romantic interest (a woefully underused Kristen Wiig) is also a nice person, again robbing the title character of a personal conflict.

That leaves snarky corporate hitman Ted as the villain. But when Mitty returns home to confront his nemesis, Mitty now sports a beard just like Ted's! (Does this mean Mitty has joined the corporate robots? Or that the filmmakers are completely clueless as to their own visual cues?)

At least the cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh and the visual effects look smashing.

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