“A cinematic Hallmark card about the triumph of the human spirit, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty finds Ben Stiller courting Oscar-season accolades through a tale that’s all schmaltz, no substance,” declares Nick Schager at Slant. “Loosely adapting the James Thurber short story that was previously filmed as a 1947 Danny Kaye vehicle, Stiller goes slushy for his saga of Walter (Stiller), an office drone whose dull, drab life is epitomized by opening images of him balancing his checkbook in a claustrophobic apartment kitchen. Walter works at Life magazine as a ‘negative asset manager,’ a title that’s in tune with his blank, empty existence, from which he periodically flees courtesy of daydreams in which he imagines himself charming co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) by leaping off of train platforms to save her three-legged puppy from a burning building, or wooing her as a dashing Arctic stud.”
At Film.com, David Ehrlich suggests that the film’s what we’d get “if Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru were remade as an 114-minute Super Bowl commercial. A visually playful enlightenment drama that’s so preoccupied with inspiring its audience that it never bothers articulating a coherent message to inspire them with, Stiller’s film so consistently undercooks its cheap Hallmark sentiments that none of these pseudo-rousing peans to the inherent wonder of being alive ever congeal into anything meaningful.”
Variety‘s Peter Debruge notes that this project has gone through “nearly two decades of rewrites and recasting—during which Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, Mike Myers and Sacha Baron Cohen were each attached… In the 74 years since Thurber’s short story appeared in the New Yorker, the name Walter Mitty has become synonymous with banal men who harbor delusions of heroism… As far back as 1939, Thurber’s story already owed a certain debt to cinema, fading in and out of Walter’s reveries the way moving pictures did.”
A bit more background from David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter: “After contributing script notes that went unused, Thurber distanced himself from the 1947 film version, which became a sideshow for star Danny Kaye to exhibit his gifts in comedic or musical vignettes that more often than not brought the story to a halt.”
Back to the movie at hand. Rodrigo Perez for the Playlist: “Co-starring Kathryn Hahn and Shirley MacLaine as Walter’s sister and mother, plus Patton Oswalt as a disembodied eHarmony customer service voice that’s constantly calling Walter and therefore continuously reminding the audience of Walter’s growth (the dialogue is unfortunately that artless), Walter Mitty boasts a strong cast, but one misused by a pedestrian script that embraces clichés and places conventional, groan-worthy conclusions at the end of each storyline shared by Walter and every major character he’s met.”
More from David D’Arcy (Screen Daily), Eric Kohn (Indiewire), and Drew McWeeney (HitFix). The Los Angeles Times‘ Steven Zeitchik has notes from the premiere at the New York Film Festival and talks with screenwriter Steve Conrad. Walter Mitty will close the Mill Valley Film Festival on Sunday and then open in the States on Christmas Day.
Updates, 10/14: “Stiller’s directorial outings, from The Cable Guy (1996) to Tropic Thunder (2008), have been dark and masochistic comedies about pop culture’s corrosive power,” writes R. Emmet Sweeney at Movie Morlocks. But Mitty is “bafflingly saccharine coming from Stiller, who had previously spent his acting capital to make scathing commentaries on self-help sludge such as this.”
“I don’t doubt Stiller’s commitment to this material,” writes Jesse Hassenger for the L, “but he seems to think I might unless he nudges me into an epiphany along with Walter. Strangely, the movie’s solution to the dilemma of momentum-killing fantasy sequences also burdens its second half with a ‘reality’ that feels nearly as fantastical.”
At the House Next Door, Kenji Fujishima suggests that “a more fully fleshed-out Mitty might have forced Stiller to actually try to play a character instead of using the premise as an opportunity to put himself on a pedestal.” Flavorwire‘s Jason Bailey is a bit kinder, settling for “a bit too precious for its own good.”
Update, 10/16: Thurber’s story “still chugs along as reliably as a Mini Coupe after all these years,” writes Tom Shone for the Guardian. “Thurber takes only two-and-a-half pages for Mitty to imagine himself out-flying a storm, performing life-saving surgery, and bombing German ammunition dumps, all the while making it only as far as his local supermarket to buy puppy biscuits—an image of a dreamer softly defeated. The story has always represented something of a false Grail for Hollywood, where they love the sound of all that dreaming, but are less enamored by the prospect of its defeat. And so it proves here.”
Update, 11/1: David Carr talks with Stiller for the New York Times.
Updates, 12/26: Mitty “tries to fold the kind of playful, wide-eyed high spirits familiar from the Night at the Museum movies into what is in effect a midlife melodrama,” writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times. What’s more, Stiller “is not content to be the hero of the story; he turns Walter into an almost-martyr and a would-be saint, a mystical self-help guru whose journey of self-discovery makes him better than everyone else, though of course he is too enlightened to say so. There is a contradiction here: An ordinary fellow should not have to be quite so special to win our admiration. And this version of Walter Mitty undermines some of the democratic whimsy that has made his story such an appealing and durable modern myth. He used to be one of us: a self-deluded dreamer charmed by his unruly creative powers, a willing prisoner of his appetite for escapism. But now our identification gives way to envy, and he is another one of those enchanted people the rest of us can only dream of becoming.”
Mitty also “uses the slow dismantling of Life magazine as the framework for a storyline that is little more than a hollow succession of product placements,” adds Violet Lucca at Reverse Shot.
Anthony Lane in the New Yorker: “Stiller’s manly task is—wait for it—to find an errant photographer (Sean Penn) who doesn’t have a cell phone. I thought I would faint from excitement.”
“Along the way he makes the Very Important Discovery that, while his fantasies might in some ways exercise his imagination, they are in a certain sense holding him back,” writes Glenn Kenny at RogerEbert.com. “In other words, don’t dream it, be it. I liked the message better in Rocky Horror myself.”
“Exquisitely produced, immaculately acted, and thoroughly uninvolving,” sighs Bilge Ebiri at Vulture. More from Nigel Andrews (Financial Times), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 2/5), Robbie Collin (Telegraph, 3/5), Richard Corliss (Time), Robert Horton (Seattle Weekly), Ben Kenigsberg (AV Club, C+), Karen Krizanovich (Arts Desk), Amy Nicholson (Voice), Cormac O’Brien (Little White Lies), Keith Phipps (Dissolve, 2.5/5), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Jim Tudor (Twitch), and Kelly Vance (East Bay Express).
Update, 1/2: “I’m all for a bit of creative vandalism when it comes to adaptations,” writes the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks. “But this innovation’s a mess, and it doesn’t add up.”