In Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller sent up the allure of realism in Hollywood, dropping a platoon of varyingly, method-devoted movie actors into actual violence. While superficially milder, Stiller’s adaptation of James Thurber’s gentle 1939 story—a remake producer Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. reportedly spent decades trying to bring to the screen—can be seen as another wholehearted embrace of fantasy. Thurber’s daydreaming hero is now an employee in the photo department at Life magazine. One day, after an inventive opening credits sequence, he arrives at work to learn the publication has been acquired. In a subtle bit of symbolism, Life will soon become Life Online.
There’s a hint of sharp satire in the idea that Mitty’s wandering mind affords him an escape from tough economic times, and the movie, shot on celluloid, doubles as an ode to vanishing analog media. The plot hinges on Mitty’s search for a missing frame that the magazine’s best freelance photographer (Sean Penn) considers the finest of his career, an image the company’s chief downsizer (Adam Scott) has inexplicably agreed to use on the last cover, despite not having seen it. Par for the course, Mitty also pines for a co-worker (Kristen Wiig) but doesn’t have the guts to ask her out.
It’s once the daydreams stop and Mitty jets off to Greenland in search of Penn’s itinerant shutterbug (and “actual” adventure) that the film takes an unexpected turn for the dull. Abandoning its more original elements, the movie opts for a banal carpe diem conceit that turns Mitty into a globetrotting bystander, with few opportunities to cut loose à la Danny Kaye. Stiller visits Greenland’s only karaoke bar, jumps out of a drunken pilot’s plane, and—in a truly tasteless interlude—delivers mom’s (Shirley MacLaine) cake to Afghan warlords. Also, like product placement? Whether it’s plugging Cinnabon (“like frosted heroin”), casting an eHarmony tech support guy as a life-advice guru, or using Papa John’s to represent a crucial moment in Mitty’s lost youth, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty negates its anti-corporate handwringing with an unabashed use of advertising—and not in the cleverly employed, Orange Mocha Frappuccino manner of Stiller’s Zoolander. Nothing is as absurd, however, as the wish-fulfillment finale. Talk about using your illusions.