James Thurber’s iconic short story on a man who blends out his humdrum life in return for fantasies in which he plays the role of leading hero was first published in 1939, became an almost instant classic and led to the term “Mittyesque” to denote a lackadaisical imposter.
Given the contemporary need for and indulgence in glossy escapism, screenwriter Steven Conrad’s updating of Walter’s existence to the corporate HQ of an ailing Life Magazine where he’s in charge of the ‘negatives’ is a stroke of genius.
And as Walter, Stiller tunes in and out of job loss realities that loom as the magazine goes digital with typically fierce wackiness. But then he jettisons illusion and finally engages with life (and the distressed damsel) by doggedly chasing down an elusive negative for the last print issue.
And wouldn’t you know it, reality turns out to consist of basic decency, backgrounded by several continents’ worth of erupting volcanoes, heaving seas and wildlife. Plus social networks.
Sentimentally entertaining and funny, Stiller’s film checks reality with appealing but old hat humanity – and a lot of effects for an ending that’s miles off the original’s limbo conclusion and not necessarily the better for it.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty | Directed by Ben Stiller (USA 2013) with Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott. Starts January 2
Originally published in issue #123, January 2014.