Walter Mitty first appeared in a James Thurber short story in 1939, when Superman was a year old and little guys were dreaming big.
But where Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel’s invincible world-saver was a guy too modest to emerge from behind his nebbishy secret identity to take credit for rescuing humankind, Mitty dreamed of glory. In his fantasy life he was a Nazi-thwarting pilot, a brilliant surgeon and a crusading barrister, while in reality Walter was just a henpecked drone, who awakens from his reveries of omnipotence to find himself smoking a cigarette outside the store where his battleaxe of a wife is shopping.
In adapting Mitty’s tale to the 21st century, actor-director Ben Stiller proves Thurber – a dyed-in-the-wool cynic – is still too thorny a sensibility for the popcorn crowd, which last saw Walter onscreen incarnated by Danny Kaye in 1947: In that movie as in this one, Walter is depicted as a sweet loser whose fantasies permit the saving of the world, a hero trapped in a dullard’s life. He’s the kind of guy who needs movies and comic books, in other words, a flattering projection of ourselves freed up to straighten up a bent planet.
In Stiller’s movie, Walter is a single guy who works at a digitally downsizing Life magazine and imagines himself doing things such as saving a three-legged dog from a burning building.
His fantasies are driven by his conviction that people (and puppies) are good and worth saving, his interior life a series of episodes in which Walter is unleashed to realize the potential of us all. If Thurber’s Mitty was a sad, more than slightly bitter three-legged puppy himself, Stiller’s is Superman in search of a telephone booth: a force of good comically contained by the dull obligations of making it to lunch hour alive.
With his irony ironed out, Walter becomes a prisoner of another kind, that of Hollywood’s insistence of sentimental deliverance, and Walter is delivered from one sentence of maximum security ordinariness to another. There’s no bitterness, anger or envy driving the guy who just wants to save three-legged puppies from burning buildings, and even his imminent professional obsolescence is defined as a romantic disappointment: Life is about to go online only, and Walter dreams of a time when the hard-copy edition made the world seem a prettier and more noble place.
Stretching Thurber’s three-page story to near epic two-hour proportions, Stiller not only trims the author’s prickliness but betrays it, rendering a caustic cautionary fable of unfulfilled grandiosity into yet another peon to the undiminished triumph of the human spirit. Stiller, who’s played irredeemable schmucks before – see, especially Greenberg – is here playing it not just safe but supersafe, and his movie vaults from any intimations of existential discontent as surely as Walter himself bursts from all manner of spectacular, CGI-articulated disaster.
In this Secret Life of Walter Mitty, our hero fights sharks, scrambles mountainsides in Afghanistan and springs whole from erupting volcanoes. He romances the girl of his dreams (Kristen Wiig), and ultimately gets outed as a Superman in average guy drag.
Needless to say, he doesn’t even smoke, and can’t imagine any life more ordinary than the one of a run-of-the-mill movie hero.