The Secret Life of Walter Meh

The dream of a successful, twenty-first-century remake of the classic Forties comedy proves to be a fantasy.

Rob Lyons

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It’s a well-loved movie, whose central character has become a byword for a daydreamer or fantasist. You’ve got an A-list comedy actor and writer on board as both star and director. What could possibly go wrong?

Actually, the fact that the remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty spent the best part of 20 years in Development Hell should have been a warning. It was first mooted in 1994 by Samuel Goldwyn Jr, whose father had produced the 1947 version starring Danny Kaye, with Jim Carrey in the lead role this time around. Along the way, various directors had apparently agreed to make the film, including Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg, and a variety of famous stars came and went after Carrey dropped out, including Owen Wilson, Mike Myers and Sacha Baron Cohen.

Eventually, the job fell to Ben Stiller, who stars and directs, with a script by Steven Conrad, who wrote The Pursuit of Happyness. The result was hardly worth the wait.

In this version, 42-year-old daydreaming singleton Walter Mitty is a ‘negative asset manager’ (he processes photographs) at Life magazine. The magazine has been taken over and the new owners are planning to end publication in print, with mass redundancies as a result. Meanwhile, Mitty himself has signed up to online dating-service eHarmony in an attempt to get closer to a colleague, single mother Cheryl (Kirsten Wiig). The complications start because the final magazine cover is going to be an image sent in by star photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). But Mitty can’t find the picture. The film charts his attempts to woo Cheryl and to find O’Connell (who is off somewhere in the world photographing something or other).

What follows is a bit of a mess, taking us on a trip via Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan to the trite conclusion that if you only stop dreaming and actually try to embrace life you can be happy and fulfilled. Okay, carpe diem is not the worst message in the world, by any means, but this is a shallow movie that seems to think it has something heartfelt and important to say.

Even the daydreaming doesn’t really make much sense. The original Mitty escapes his humdrum, put-upon reality in the world of fantasy. But Stiller’s Mitty is not obviously unhappy, apart from pining for the new girl in the office – who, as it goes, seems to quite like him. He has a good job at a world-famous magazine. He is respected, even if his constant ‘zoning out’ invites ridicule. He seems to have a loving family, too. So why the dissociation?

If the plot is mildly irritating, the product placement is downright annoying. Not only have eHarmony and Life (still sort-of going as a Time magazine brand) been rather awkwardly stitched into the centre of the narrative, but pizza chain Papa John’s is right there, too. It makes the product placement in recent Bond movies look understated. Films need cash, and some subtle advertising is no big deal. But plonking a quick flash of a laptop, a car or a luxury watch into the action is one thing; building the entire movie around brands is simply ridiculous.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is by no means a terrible movie. There are some scenes that raise a smile – a punch-up in a lift over a Stretch Armstrong toy is mildly amusing – but it never manages to be laugh-out-loud funny and it does seem an awful waste of talent. Even the central character seems one-dimensional.

The essential message of Walter Mitty is ‘stop dreaming – go and take some risks’. But it’s not the audience that needs to learn that lesson, it’s Hollywood. Take some risks, folks, and let’s have no more of these lame remakes.

Rob Lyons is associate editor at spiked.

Watch the trailer for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty:

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