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There are perhaps more reasons to NOT do a remake of a classic film than reasons to do so, yet THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is that rare and delightful example of why it’s only perhaps, not always. It is also a bold re-imagining of both the short story by James Thurber, and the subsequent beloved film starring Danny Kaye (which Thurber hated, by the way). Yet, for all the changes, the spirit of the tale is the same, reacting to the temper of the times in which it is set, in the original Thurber, to the oppressive conformity of social conventions in 1939, and the same for the 1947 film. In 2013, life is very different, and rather than trying to reconstruct an earlier time, screenwriter Steve Conrad has taken on the millennial malaise, and done so without apologies. A bold move, and a risky one, but one that pays off because for all the differences in the specifics, Walter Mitty, played by director Ben Stiller, is still a man longing for a life of excitement and meaning, and his story takes the form that Thurber loved so well, a fable.
This Walter Mitty is also a grey little man, living a gray little life as a negatives manager at Life magazine. Aside from the rich yet somewhat obvious metaphorical overtones of a man without one working at an entity called life, there is also the bittersweetness of working for in an industry going through radical changes. Said change is embodied in the bearded and perfectly coiffed person of Ted Henricks (Adam Scott), the transition manager who will take Life from paper to cyberspace, gleefully reducing the workforce that has dedicated its collected, ahem, life, to the publication. Life and Life are changing, but not without more trauma than the prospect of mere unemployment carries. The last print edition will carry as its cover a photograph by a daredevil of a legendary photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), whose work Walter has been developing from the quaint medium of film for the last 16 years. A glitch, the first in 16 years, forces Walter to go beyond his comfort zone. So does Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), the newly hired accounts manager who has taken Walter’s fancy, so much so that she renders him all but speechless when they run into each other. And so does his mother (Shirley MacLaine), whose move from his childhood home to a retirement facility is a trip down memory lane, and a sly nudge into the unknown.
Walter’s secret life, though, the one of his wild imagination, is another story, in this life he saves Cheryl’s dog, woos her at the top of the world with a poetic falcon, and engages in epic action sequences in which he and Ted pummel each other while destroying New York City in the process. The transition between the real and the imaginary is seamless, leaving it to us in the audience figure out when exactly we have left Walter’s reality, device that is put to fiendishly clever uses as the story progresses. Stiller, too, is put to fiendishly clever uses as the small man who dreams big. In a witty opening that provides the perfect introduction to Mitty 2.0, Stiller is seen at breakfast in his fastidiously ordered and gray apartment. His morning reading is his checkbook, which he is balancing. He is also balancing making a first move on an online dating site, sending a wink to Cheryl. His efficient economy of movement devolving into a flurry of dithering as he struggles to push the send button, and then struggles to not push it. Inner turmoil, outward calm, and just a hint of both panic and resentment when coping with Ted’s verbal sparring as Walter seems to be always at the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing when running into the professional hatchet man. He also has a nicely balanced mix of excitement and bemusement when he sets forth to find the missing negative, not so much embracing the chaos as accepting it as part of the deal, and then settling into the adventure. Stiller’s direction is as precise at Mitty is, fastidious in details, and orderly without ever becoming dull. Far from it, the small moment of revelation have the same impact as mighty leaps of faith into stormy seas, or a prop plane flying doggedly into the smoke of an erupting volcano.
If THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is the perfect distillation of the ci-mentioned millennial malaise, and it is, it is also a sly antidote to it. Far from decrying the idea of change, it accepts with a few regretful backward glances. If the internet killed Walter’s industry, it also gave him a way to interact with Cheryl, and to make an odd connection with Todd (Patton Oswalt), the dating site tech who punctuates the film with phone calls to Walter urging him to complete his profile page, becoming the externalization of the inner voice of the inner man Walter is unleashing.
Suffused with a wistful whimsy, this Millennial Mitty is quietly profound without being pretentious. And while Thurber would have hated it, it was his style, he might not have hated it as much as he could have.