Ben Stiller has been talking up a film of James Thurber’s 1939 short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” for a very, very long time. And, $90 million later, here it is. The adaptation by Steve Conrad, which went through a claimed sixty drafts, is very much in the league of an earlier Conrad screenplay, “The Weather Man,” which took Chicago as a setting in a way that “Mitty” takes Manhattan and Iceland: Poignancy arises through small details not necessarily observed by an essentially passive milquetoast of a protagonist, but very much seen by the audience. Stiller’s Mitty is, well… a guy. (A guy who has some plot-convenient skateboard skills for a fifty-year-old office guy.) Playing a photo archivist, or, “negative asset manager,” for LIFE magazine, already defunct but about to go online-only in the world of the film, Mitty doodles and dawdles through the world, swept away by momentary bursts of special-effects fantasy while his life is changed by the presence of a cake made by his mother. (Mitty shares a ken for high-waisted trousers with Theodore Twombly, the protagonist of the futuristic “Her.”) Bright colors prevail: cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (“The Piano,” “Lone Star”) seems to be auditioning to shoot the next generation of videos for songs by sigur rós. The brightest bits of comedy come from moments that burst from the same sensibility that many years ago crafted “The Ben Stiller Show,” including a weird parody of “Benjamin Button” and recurring physical jokes about Papa John’s pizza. The most jarring are the moments that seem like precise studies of the early, odder films of David Gordon Green. (“Mitty” shares a three-legged dog with Green’s “George Washington.”) The very pretty soundtrack tends to melancholy twee, and includes songs by José Gonzalez, Junip, Jack Johnson, Of Monsters and Men, Hall & Oates, the Human League and a Kristen Wiig-sung version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” With the light, lyrical smiles of Wiig, the echt-James Nachtwey stylings of Sean Penn, Kathryn Hahn, Adam Scott, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as a drunk Icelander, Terence Bernie Hines, Adrian Martinez, Shirley MacLaine, Conan O’Brien, Andy Richter. 114m. (Ray Pride)
“The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” opens Christmas Day. A six-minute-five-second trailer is below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.