Based on James Thurber's 1939 short story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" languished in development hell for almost 20 years before finally being filmed. Numerous actors and directors were attached to the project at various points, including Jim Carrey, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg and Owen Wilson, but the details were finally set when Ben Stiller was announced as the star and director in 2011.
The tale has been modernized, and it's just right for the times. When his father passed away 20 years ago, teenaged Walter had to abandon his dreams of traveling the world and got a job to support his mother and sister. In the ensuing years, he's grown into his role of being the responsible one in the family, and as an outlet, he has wild daydreams. Unfortunately, when he's daydreaming, he also ignores people, conversations and events around him, causing him to be a spectator in life, rather than an active participant.
He works as a manager in the negative asset department at "Life" magazine, which is being converted from a print magazine to an online-only publication. A consulting team has shown up to figure out the direction for the magazine, and that means layoffs will ensue. He's been tasked with preparing the cover photo for the final print issue of "Life," but the designated photo is missing. He uses the other prints as clues to track down the renowned photojournalist Sean O'Connell to locate the missing negative.
An analog-versus-digital theme pervades the entire film. Mitty still owns an old flip phone rather than a Smartphone. He still wears a watch. He processes physical film instead of digital photos for the magazine. He still balances his bank account with a physical checkbook. Mitty is more comfortable sending physical greeting cards, rather than using digital correspondence or websites such as eHarmony. The movie was also made with physical film, instead of being shot with a digital video camera.
It's actually a great relief that the movie had casting problems until Stiller came along. He's done such a great job as Mitty that it's difficult to think of anyone else in the role. There's a seriousness to Stiller, and it's easy to picture him giving up the mantle of being a teenager in order to provide for his still-grieving family. There's also a slight awkwardness to Stiller, so it's understandable that he's resorted to daydreams to imagine a life in which he's more reckless, worldly and debonair. Yet when he's skateboarding through Iceland and you get a glimpse of the young kid within who's yearning to break free, Stiller makes it feels equally plausible. He manages to convey volumes without doing much — a sense of understatement that many actors lack.
Kristen Wiig gets to show off her more serious side — and her singing talent — as Mitty's love interest, Cheryl Melhoff. The incomparable Shirley MacLaine plays Walter's mother, and Sean Penn is believable as the quietly intense O'Connell.
The daydream sequences, which are highlighted in the trailers, are perhaps the biggest selling point of the movie. They're done extremely well and are so seamless that you're just as disoriented as Mitty when the daydream is over. The sequences decrease in number as the movie progresses, but you won't mind since you're rooting for Mitty to overcome his uneventful life. During the transition period in the middle of the film, you're unsure whether the fanciful scenes are real or imaginary.
Though some would say the spirit of the original short story has been lost in this attempt at modernization, I'd wholeheartedly disagree. "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is an admirable effort in combining the past with the present, the serious with the whimsical, and the analog with the digital. It's where many of us find ourselves as we tackle middle age, and the parallels resonate on so many levels.
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is rated "PG" and has a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes. It is showing in 2-D.
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