Imagine, if you will, that in the next James Bond movie, Bond were to be reconceived as a married man with a desk job, who only imagines himself saving the world. You'd probably throw things at the screen, and preemptively declare it the worst film ever made (though I daresay Alan Moore could get a pretty decent comic book out of the premise). But reverse the equation, and you come close to what Ben Stiller has done to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. James Thurber's Mitty was defined primarily by (a) his daydreams of adventure that contrasted with his mundane life and (b) being married. True, the 1947 Danny Kaye film ultimately gave him an actual adventure, but it at least maintained the notion of a split identity between the dull and the derring-do. Stiller the director just can't seem to stand not having Stiller the actor be an unabashed hero.
That's not to necessarily say there isn't room for a radically new take on Mitty, though Thurber would surely decry such a thing were he still with us (he wasn't even a fan of the Kaye version). But when you start your story like the real deal and switch it out, it's like going to Gordon Ransay's restaurant and being told your second course will be a Big Mac. More's the shame: the visual aesthetic is lovely, with career-best work from cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (Bridget Jones' Diary) and imaginative production design by Jeff Mann (Transformers). Stiller seems to be going for that Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman vibe, but in the end his instincts are far too commercial to truly roll with the weirdness he occasionally touches upon.
Stiller's Mitty works in the photo department at Life magazine, which makes "Secret Life" into a groaningly obvious pun, and means that if you're assuming this to be in real time, this is a story that happened in 2007, right around the printing of the last issue. Everything's about to be downsized by a team of youngish smart alecs who all come across like "alternative" stand-up comics in stunt casting; in charge of them is Ted (Adam Scott), whose ridiculous beard and smarmy manner instantly rub Mitty wrong. In one early flight of fantasy, Mitty imagines the two of them in an epic action-movie style chase scene through New York traffic in pursuit of a Stretch Armstrong doll. This is not bad stuff so far - there would seem to be plenty of room to comment upon cinema as a collective waking daydream, and on the way our daydreams filter less through the static print images in magazines of yesteryear than the cliches of big-budget CG entertainments.
Things start to derail, though, when Mitty, who cannot find the intended cover photo for the final issue of Life, decides - in part thanks to a growing desire to impress his office crush Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) - to track down the photographer, a globe-trotting adventurer named Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn). O'Connell was last heard from in Greenland, and so non-adventurous Walter promptly goes there.
At first, the line between fantasy and reality maintains, as a surreal bar fight and a vision of Wiig singing David Bowie tunes seem like they could be all in his head. There are even some surprising coincidences, and a brief hint that there might be a Tyler Durdenish connection between Mitty and O'Connell (it's quickly dropped). Alas, it soon becomes pretty straightforwardly clear that this is reality, and Mitty is suddenly operating on the level of an action hero - in an attempt to give us some grounding for this, we're told he used to be a mohawk-sporting skateboarding champion, but had to quit and get a job when his father died. He's not a regular guy dreaming of being exciting - he's a formerly exciting kid who was forced to become boring. This is a pretty significant, fundamental change.