Dec 23 2013 1:00pm

We Only Live Once, Or Do We? The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Ben Stiller

“We only live once, Sergeant,” said Mitty, with his faint, fleeting smile. “Or do we?”

James Thurber’s 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was a snapshot of a Connecticut man going about a mundane set of errands, and, during the course of which, extrapolating elaborate fantasy scenarios with himself as the star. It became one of the classic works of American short fiction, and in fairly short order the name “Walter Mitty” became synonymous with “daydreamer.”

It was first adapted for the screen in 1947 with Danny Kaye in the lead, and now again with Ben Stiller directing and playing the lead.

Stiller’s Mitty is physically transplanted to the 21st century, even if his heart belongs to the 20th: he works as a “Negative Assets Manager” (maintaining physical film negatives) for a fictional version of LIFE magazine which is being taken over by a corporate transition team who intend to turn the publication into an online-only presence (akin to what happened to the real LIFE in 2009). Mitty spends his days pining for an attractive co-worker (Kristen Wiig), unsuccessfully attempting to send her “winks” on eHarmony. When Mitty’s sort-of-kind-of idol—ruggedly adventurous photograher Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), so old school he doesn’t even have a phone and communicates with LIFE’s publishers via telegram—sends a negative reel and requests they use a specific photo for the magazine’s final cover, Mitty has to find the missing frame of celluloid, with the journey that entails comprising the movie’s narrative.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a very well-directed movie, and a gorgeous one to look at, with Stiller’s choice to shoot on film echoing the protagonist’s affinity for analog technology—a nostalgic streak also reflected in the movie’s visual fascination with mid-20th century architecture and design, one of the two major informing influences on this Mitty’s daydreams. The original Mitty, living roughly within that time period himself, didn’t so much look back as he did escape. The 2013 incarnation also has personal reasons for looking back: he had to surrender his youth as a flamboyant skateboard prodigy after his father’s death to go to work and support his family. Thus, the second major influence on his daydreams: what his life could have been without the self-imposed rectitude of prematurely having to grow up.

The movie doesn’t so much take the stance that one doesn’t have to grow up, but that there is more than one way to do so. Stiller’s Mitty finds—repeatedly and not subtly—that safety is brief and illusory, but that it’s possible with a bit of effort to stay one step ahead of disaster, to have a rope around one’s waist before leaping into the void, so to speak. But the most important thing, and probably the most fundamental departure from Thurber’s Mitty, is that Stiller’s learns that fantasy—and, at a crucial point, its close relative memory—is key in informing one’s personal reality, in an “if you dream it, you can make it real” kind of way. Fantasy is what drives reality in the new version, instead of the other way around.

And that, rather than the misguided “things were better and purer then” nostalgia that frequently accompanies such narratives, is the point of the visual references to the post-WWII era in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It was an era whose mainstream pop culture, embodied by the real LIFE magazine, was defined by an optimism that today’s culture is not. The modern day in the movie is evoked with a slightly heavy and awkwardly humorous affect by references to commercial brands, which feels more thematically appropriate than most other product placement. Not to mention, the products in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty lead to sadness and futility; Mitty finds a better friendship with an eHarmony customer service rep (a terrific running gag) than he does romance while using the site.

There’s enough to appreciate in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to make up for its not being, substantially, all that weighty, and for its occasional teetering on the precipice of earnestness over the void of treacle. It’s earnest and sweet in just the right proportions. Ben Stiller gives one of the more focused and least self-flagellating performances of his career. Kristen Wiig is funny and nice in very Kristen Wiig fashion. Shirley MacLaine and Kathryn Hahn are fun as mother and sister Mitty. There are a couple great cameos I won’t spoil, even if everyone else does. All in all it’s a pretty fantastic Hollywood movie, with lots of pretty fantasy. That it’s so well-built is really what elevates this above the mean for self-actualization movies, which tend to be a bit exasperating and pointless, particularly when they’re about rich and privileged men. This one’s not like that, though. This one’s very good indeed.

Danny Bowes is a film critic and columnist for and Indiewire. He also blogs sporadically. You can follow him on Twitter.

1. dwndrgn
I adored the first film with Danny Kaye who remains one of my favorite comedy actors. I've never been a big Ben Stiller fan so I'm a bit afraid to see this one - though your review makes it more interesting to me than the trailers did.
Ian Gazzotti
2. Atrus
The trailers are terrible, they make it look like a laugh-a-minute comedy while instead it's really subtle and bittersweet. You'll laught at/with Mitty, but it's not all zany all the time.
Steve Oerkfitz
3. SteveOerkfitz
Never liked the original. Never found Danny Kaye in the least bit funny.
4. Kip W
Thurber hated the Danny Kaye version, and he'd certainly hate this one, with its antiseptic moral that "we all have these abilities and we just need to believe in ourselves" that Stiller spouted in his Colbert interview. It may be (to the reviewer) a good movie, but it's a terrible Mitty.

Here's the only adaptation Thurber enjoyed. From the radio anthology "This Is My Best," and starring Robert Benchley. The first moments are missing. It's an actual telling of Thurber's story, instead of something that grafts the character's name into something that has nothing to do with it.
6. Tehanu
I'm very fond of the Danny Kaye movie even though it's not a very good one; it's (a) really hokey and (b) nothing like the original story. It's basically just a vehicle for Danny to work out and there are some wonderful bits in it, if you're a fan. I think the trailers for the Stiller version make it look sort of lame, but after this review I might change my tune.
7. Puff the Magic Commenter
@Atrus: Man, we have not seen the same trailers. None of the three I've seen in any way suggest a "laugh-a-minute comedy," let alone a "zany" one. I've only seen evidence of a director who's watched a bunch of Spike Jonez and Michel Gondry and said "Imma get me some of that!"

It may be a great flick, but it looks like the only thing left of Thurber is "It's about a daydreamer named Walter."
8. Doug from Tally
I really wish that Hollywood would quit taking classics like "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and essentially gutting them to the point of being nothing like the original. This movie, in and of itself, may be all well and good, but it obviously has nothing to do with Thurber's original story, which is darker and, while funny in its own right, somewhat depressing.

I never cared much for the Danny Kaye version (which also strayed far, far away from the original story) and won't really bother with this one. It's a shame, since Thurber was a gifted writer in his day and much of his work could use a good screening if someone would bother. Unfortunately, he was a bit too subtle for the masses, particularly today, where a subtle touch isn't much appreciated.
9. Abigail H Endsley
I went to see this one a few days after Christmas. As the friend who was with me said, "This was the best movie of 2013."

I've never read the short story, but when I was watching the movie I couldn't help but think "Oh my gosh, that's me!" over and over again. For a person who daydreams almost EXACTLY like Mitty, it was very inspiring. Kind of a "your dreams really CAN come true" sort of message.

I was also surprised by Ben Stiller's performance! Definitely the best role I've ever seen him in! If you haven't seen this film, DO SO! It's FANTASTIC!
11. Sonya
Looking forward to seeing this movie. I mostly like Ben Stiller. I loved Danny Kaye. (He emceed at the Kingdome when my mom danced there for the opening.) I also really loved Waldo Kitty. Wish I could find that somewhere.

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