Ben Stiller has always been the satirist, and (thankfully) the sharp one, too—notable in his earlier works “The Cable Guy” and “Tropic Thunder”—but in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” his sweeping satire is relegated in favour of the Hallmark-schmaltz omnipresent in his film’s same-league big-budget dramedies. Which is a shame, because the satiric punch here is fine, by all means: this (admittedly deft) exploitation of an out-of-print magazine that permeated a whole generation. The problem is that the one search of The Quintessence of Life may have been terribly mistaken with, and while the other Quintessence is left unfound, ultimately making a film that’s no more than a confused audio-visual artifice fit to suit the massive demand of such consumer produce, instead of the transporting story Stiller aspires his film to be.
Sourced from the 1939 short story by James Thurber, Stiller’s directing/starring comedy centers on one Walter Mitty, a fantasist who escapes his drab life as a “negative asset manager,” by way of daydreaming delirious scenarios in his head. Life Magazine is symbolically down-sizing to being the smaller virtual publication, Life Online—a commentary on Stiller’s part, whose title character is first seen struggling to socialize with an appealing colleague (Kristen Wiig) through eHarmony (a dating-site), tech-repped by a dorky Patton Oswalt, who later on inquires why Walter won’t simply “humanly invite her out.” An explanation—of course!—lies in Stiller’s socially awkward, milquetoast office drone; a photo-negative specialist whose listless days are taken to fantasist daydreams that register as mere cartoonish escapades. But even those lack the edge of Stiller’s prior works, let alone justify the individual conundrum of his character: if Walter’s incredulous reveries are suggestive of the man he aspires to be, then that terrible nod to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” serves good purpose if only by chance. Unconsciously, Walter dwindles to this cartoony vision of himself rather than grow living the True Meaning of Life, which I take it, the film originally pursues.
If anything, Stiller turns in a particularly restrained portrayal, in contrast to the whole lot of the film’s superficial, contradicting swivels in narrative. The Steve Conrad script-work is messy, loose and indecisive, made with the alarmingly close precision—the product placements, the grand visuals, the soulful soundtrack—of a well-targeted commerce effort.
Regardless, “Walter Mitty” simply plummets north of that call-to-action sequence that finds Walter in journeys as lurid as his frequent fantasies. With nary a sense of empathy for the character, we are anchored to the supposed search for that very Quintessence but avails no true discovery. Sean Penn, as a highly-sought, star-photographer, and Shirley MacLaine, as Walter’s sweet mother, at some point go to flap it to our faces, and even Walter’s, but a nagging uncertainty asks if it was ever truly found, let alone searched for.