Cute but impossibly bland, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is missing the magic that director Ben Stiller is clearly striving for. Instead, it plays like Wes Anderson Lite. And any resemblance to the sweetly sad James Thurber story it’s loosely based on is tangential at best.
Stiller plays the mild-mannered titular character who works in the negative processing department at Life magazine, which has been taken over by efficiency experts, led by the cartoonishly smarmy Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott). Walter has a crush on winsome co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig, mostly wasted) and spends much of his day dreaming about impressing her with a bold, heroic life that he doesn’t lead. There’s a back story: Walter’s father died when he was a boy, so he had to put away the rebelliously boyish things (mohawk, skateboard) and get a job at Papa John’s. (The Papa John's product placement is just one of many in this film: There’s also eHarmony and Cinnabon—described as “frosted heroin” at one point!—and probably a few others that I missed.)
When a photo that is meant to capture the “quintessence of Life magazine” goes missing, Walter has to track down Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn, enjoying himself), the adventure junkie photographer who took it. This takes Walter to Greenland, Iceland, and the Himalayas. During that time, he grows some hipster scruff, acquires some man-jewelry, and basically learns to live life to the fullest.
This is obviously super corny stuff and it’s played for maximum whimsy. But whimsy is a dangerous thing in the wrong hands. (Wes Anderson films should come with a warning: Do Not Try This At Home.) The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has no mystery, no secrets to share. It’s pleasant enough, but for a film about taking risks and embracing adventure, it feels awfully safe.