Every one of us, at some time or another, has probably felt like the titular hero of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller)—an insignificant, invisible cog in the machinery of everyday life, able to find real satisfaction only in elaborate fantasies. I can think of no better way to honor such a man’s quest for finding what is real and substantial in life than turning it into a two-hour commercial for eHarmony, Papa John’s Pizza, Time/Life Inc. and Cinnabon.
Whatever other life lessons might be percolating beneath the surface of this latest adaptation of James Thurber’s story—which Stiller directed as well as starred in—are virtually impossible to find beneath the product placement. Perhaps it’s supposed to be inspiring to watch the nebbishy Walter—facing the prospect of losing his job at a downsizing Life magazine unless he finds a missing photo negative—head off on a globe-hopping trek. Or maybe his budding relationship with his co-worker/newly single mom Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) is meant to give us hope of finding true love.
But there’s nothing remotely genuine about the way the story unfolds, starting with Stiller’s casting of himself as Walter. He’s not nearly subtle enough of an actor to pull off this character; he plays introversion like it’s a coat he’s wearing only as long as he absolutely must. He’s fine in the fantasy sequences satirizing targets ranging from superhero movies to Benjamin Button, but once Walter is supposed to get real, Walter Mitty gets real hard to take.
Of course, a whole lot of that hard-to-take-ness is also attributable to the brand names pasted all over the movie like it was a NASCAR driver. Every feel-good moment of playing soccer in the Himalayas or skateboarding through Iceland crashes into the fundamental reality that this movie is always selling you something. If that’s the reality Walter needs to wake up to, I’ll hit the snooze button.
THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY
Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott