James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was about a bored, unassuming married man who escapes his humdrum life through adventurous fantasies in which he becomes a war hero, a test pilot and the like. He avoids the boredom of errands and life’s routine that way.
In Ben Stiller’s new film based on that 1939 story, the daydreaming Mitty becomes a shy 40-something who isn’t so much avoiding reality as using fantasy as an excuse for not seizing the day, for not asking out the woman (Kristen Wiig) at the office, for never traveling and experiencing the world.
Walter Mitty is a metho- dical man, carefully bud-geting his life, looking after his mother (Shirley MacLaine), too dull to have anything to post on his eHarmony dating profile, too shy to reach out to that new employee Cheryl (Wiig) at work.
He has managed photo negatives at Life magazine for 16 years, living vicariously through the hero photographer (Sean Penn) who still shoots photos on celluloid. But Life has just been bought by a company that plans to close it after one last issue.
And the meticulous Walter, hounded by the corporate boor (Adam Scott) now in charge, has misplaced an image the famous photographer insisted was “the quintessence of Life.”
Every day, Walter walks through Life’s halls and loses himself in shots of mountain climbers in the Himalayas. He imagines the witty comebacks that would insult the new boss to his core or win the fair Cheryl. He “zones out” in these fantasies.
But that missing photo and photographer give him purpose. His stumbling conversations with Cheryl convince him that he has a mission — to track down the elusive photographer and find “frame 25,” “the quintessence of Life.”
And we’re off — to Greenland, Iceland and beyond — chasing ghosts, a photograph and a dream.
The film’s ambition and reach seem larger than they actually are, much like the locations and the product placement plot points. Its quiet tone — built around Stiller’s buttoned-down, meek, Steve Carell-like performance — can make you think it’s deeper than it is.
But the visuals of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” cast a spell. The “world is changing, time to change with it” story — with its many forms of obsolescence, from photo magazines to Kodak film to photographers and “negative managers” — will resonate with anyone who has poured years into a job that this disruptive, digital age has killed.
And the message — Life isn’t a magazine, a job or a savings account, but an experience — is as timeless as the boring and bored Walter Mittyesque dreamer that James Thurber created 75 years ago, when Life was still a magazine.
THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY
Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristin Wiig, Sean Penn, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott
Director: Ben Stiller
Running time: 1:54
Rated: PG; some crude comments, language and action violence