In this remake of the fondly remembered but too-little-seen Danny Kaye comedy from 1947, Ben Stiller (who also directs) plays the constantly daydreaming Walter Mitty. Underappreciated and openly mocked by his colleagues, Mitty works in the photography department of Life magazine, frequently collaborating with a mysterious, world famous photographer (Sean Penn), who snaps inspiring visions that Mitty develops and supplies for the magazine’s cover.
When a key photograph has gone missing, Mitty decides to track down the photographer personally. Not only is Mitty’s job on the line, but his newfound office romance with a co-worker (Kristen Wiig), as well as his tendency to daydream of a grander existence, makes him realize how much is lacking in his life. He heads off to Greenland, in search of the lost print and its maker, and, in essence, on a trek to find himself.
Often feeling like a commercial for itself, Stiller’s film features several scenes that resemble music videos or a pumped-up trailer for the very movie we’re watching. I like Stiller, particularly as an actor, but his efforts as a comedy director always feel too lead footed. He bludgeons his audience with the joke, not trusting them to get the punch line and, instead, pushing too hard for easy laughs. His most famous directorial efforts, The Cable Guy and Tropic Thunder, have real laughs but also suffer from the in-your-face, trying-too-hard style of comedy that worked in small spurts for his TV series, The Ben Stiller Show.
In addition to the travelogue scenes, which are visually worthy of National Geographic or a Nike ad, there’s the dream sequences, which are really too much. We also get aggressive promotions for Papa John’s Pizza, Cinnabon, and Life magazine. It’s all too heavy handed to be funny, too lightweight to be a grand statement on life (the magazine and the state of existence). Mitty’s fantasies are like elaborate movie spoofs and little else, right down to a parody of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which provides the film’s biggest laugh.
Whether we’re seeing Mitty’s internal life or his actual day-to-day, nothing here feels real. Tonally, this is a real mess, as the love story, whimsical fantasy bits, central mystery, adventure sequences, office politics, love story, and family scenes mash into one another and never feel like they’re all a part of one film.
Stiller can clearly make a big movie with state-of-the-art special effects but he still comes across as a large scale satirist more than a sincere filmmaker. Despite lots of go-for-your-dream, Hallmark-worthy dialog, the cynicism comes across a lot stronger than any attempted sincerity. As an actor, Stiller is touchingly vulnerable at first, until the role finally feels like a vanity project (all of Mitty’s movingly sensitive quirks are strangely gone by the third act).
Wiig is delightful in a dialed-down, schtick-free character role, Shirley MacLaine is wasted in too small a part and Penn has a real beauty of a cameo near the film’s end. Adam Scott’s office creep is so repellent, he needed a stronger send-off than the scene the movie gives him. Patton Oswald plays a customer service phone operator for an internet dating website, a subplot that begins promisingly, until the movie and the audience need constant reminders why he’s in the movie.
From the scenic footage to the interiors of the character’s apartments, everything is too neat and tidy. Nothing feels lived-in, as the weight of the production design crushes the magical quality Stiller reached for. There are moments here to savor, which stand out for their scale and daring. Stiller aimed high but, whereas Mitty’s longing has real pain and feeling, the movie itself is a slick fantasy. It has more to say about the movie star Ben Stiller than it does the sad, lonely Walter Mitty.
Score: ** (1-5 Star Scale)