Skip to content

'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty': Imagine That!

Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig provide splashy fun — though Thurberites will wonder where the dark whimsy went

Rating: PG

Run Time: 2 hours, 3 minutes

Stars: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Shirley MacLaine

Director: Ben Stiller

Movie review begins beneath the video trailer.

I was a weird kid: While my classmates loved Hardy Boys mysteries and comic books, I was the world's youngest fan of James Thurber.

Sign up for the AARP Leisure Newsletter — and get movie reviews, great games and more delivered to you every month

The wildly inventive New Yorker writer died in 1961, when I was 5. But from the moment I happened upon my dad's copy of The Thurber Carnival, I became a devotee of Thurber's scrawl-like cartoons and meticulously measured humor.

Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

20th Century Fox

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) imagines himself as a fearless mountain climber who captures the attention of his co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig).

His most beloved short story was The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the microscopically observed tale of a quiet little man. In the company of his patronizing wife on a shopping trip, Mitty escapes his humdrum life by imagining himself as the hero in a series of fantastical adventures.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty shares its title with a new slam-bang, big-screen comedy-adventure film directed by and starring the very funny Ben Stiller. Like Thurber's Mitty, Stiller's leads an exciting life, but only inside his mind: He punctuates the daily tedium of his job (a photo editor at Life magazine) with grandly cinematic fantasies that include a heroic pet rescue from an exploding building and a superhero-style battle on the streets of Manhattan.

Walter is also fixated on a lovely coworker. (That would be Kristen Wiig, one of the funniest women alive; sadly, she's asked to do little more here than look fetching, though she does that quite well.) Every time he tries to woo her, however, he drifts off into another epic daydream. Plus Walter has bigger problems: He's been entrusted with the 35 mm negative for a photo slated to grace the final cover of Life, and it's gone missing. His frantic search for the errant frame — which involves tracking down the globe-trotting photographer who shot it (Sean Penn, in a small but nicely realized role) — sends Mitty on a worldwide scamper of his own. This real-life adventure tops anything his fertile imagination ever conjured up.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a visionary work by Stiller. His camera is endlessly imaginative, and the segues between reality and fantasy are cleverly — sometimes beautifully — done. We like Mitty. We're in love with his girl. We're even happy to meet his sweet-natured mother (Shirley MacLaine).

Still, part of me wishes the movie were called something else: Reality Bites, maybe? Nah — Stiller already made a movie named that. I've been to the multiplex enough times to understand that no good movie can slavishly match the book on which it's based. But these two Mittys don't even share the same universe. For Stiller's Mitty, his imaginary life is a pathological problem; unless he snaps out of it, he'll never find true happiness. Thurber's Mitty — tightly wound, painfully shy — couldn't survive without his flights of fancy. Though the character was created decades before this phrase was coined, you suspect Mitty might "go postal" without the release of his interior life.

Thurber's Walter Mitty was a funny story, but not a feel-good one. Stiller's is feel-good from the get-go — and it stays there, full throttle, right through the closing credits. That's another story altogether.

Bill Newcott writes about Movies for Grownups and other entertainment stories for AARP Media.