In “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” the title character — a timid Life magazine photo archivist played by Ben Stiller (who also directed) — has to wake up from his daydreams and live life to its fullest. And you know what helps him do this? The fact that his real life turns out to be almost as exciting and improbable as his fantasies. A victorious bar-fight with a drunken brute, an unprotected dive into treacherous ocean waters, a magnificent hike through the mountains of Afghanistan, and a spur-of-the-moment trip to Greenland and Iceland (not to mention the disposable income to afford it) are just a few of the unrealistic “real life” things that happen when Walter (who’s never traveled, fought, or hiked before) breaks out of his shell and grabs life by the nipples.
Based on James Thurber’s 1939 short story in the sense that it has the same title, and written by Steve Conrad (“The Pursuit of Happyness”), Stiller’s film is a curiously antiseptic dud. It’s obviously meant to be inspiring, but it’s airless and flat, like it was made by aliens who don’t understand how human emotions work, only that they are desirable and can be produced by some combination of panoramic images and stirring music.
Here is the protagonist making inroads with his secret crush, who is played by Kristen Wiig, whom you have enjoyed in other films! This makes you “happy,” yes? And here he is learning that if you’ll take some risks, life will reward you with impossible magic! This brings you to “tears,” right? Are we saying that right? “Tears”? What about this Arcade Fire song? These are good things, no?
I’d be more forgiving of the movie’s cluelessness if the story weren’t 100% stupid and crammed with shameless product placement for Papa John’s and eHarmony (for starters). A flaky but brilliant photographer named Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) sends Life a roll of film containing what he believes will be the perfect image for the magazine’s final cover — only the picture isn’t there. Rather than tell report this to his boss (Adam Scott, miserably playing a villain) or try more diligently to contact the phone-less and email-less O’Connell, Walter simply hops on a plane bound for the last place O’Connell is known to have been, which happens to be Greenland. He does this at the prompting of his co-worker, Cheryl (Wiig), who thinks it’s not only a great idea but the only real option. Along the way, he talks on the phone a lot with an eHarmony employee (played by Patton Oswalt), who also inspires him. More faux-motivational nonsense ensues, each unlikely plot point giving way to the next until it finally ends and you leave the theater either weeping or wondering what, exactly, was supposed to have made you weep.
D (1 hr., 54 min.; )