Will Ben Stiller’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty Be Half as Good as Its Trailer?

Slate's Culture Blog
July 30 2013 4:21 PM

Trailer Critic: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Ben Stiller is Walter Mitty, daydreamer extraordinaire.

20th Century Fox

Ben Stiller is, as Tad Friend pointed out in The New Yorker last year, “the only actor with three billion-dollar franchises” (Night at the Museum, Madagascar, and Meet the Parents). He’s most known for those movies and for playful rom-coms like There’s Something about Mary and slapstick like Dodgeball. So you might not have guessed that for the past couple of years he’s spent much of his time developing and directing The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, an absurdist romp that will be released this Christmas, and which clearly has Oscar-sized ambitions.

In case you doubted those ambitions, the first trailer is in full “triumph of the human spirit” mode pretty much throughout.


Not much plot is articulated, but here are the basics: The original source material, a classic and very short James Thurber story, features a man, Mitty, who indulges in five heroic, escapist fantasies while shopping with his wife. The 1947 musical adaptation moved Mitty to a book publishing firm in New Jersey and surrounded him with a grating boss, nagging mother, and dimwitted fiancée. This time around, Mitty (Stiller) is a photo editor at Life magazine who is desperate to transcend the tedium of reality. He is heckled by colleagues and enamored with a sultry brunette (Kristen Wiig). A grizzled Sean Penn beckons him from a black-and-white photograph, and fantastical excursions involving helicopters and stormy seas follow. (A year ago, Richard Brody brilliantly glossed these differences between source material and film, based on Friend’s reporting).

The New Yorker profile largely painted Stiller as an auteur-in-waiting, an artist too long confined to antic physical comedy. And to be fair, Stiller can be a bold and audacious director: Reality Bites is an incisive Gen-X manifesto that holds up surprisingly well; Zoolander and Tropic Thunder have both become comic touchstones. The trailer also showcases Stiller’s talent for composition—the film looks beautiful, and the carefully framed and often panoramic shots are reminiscent of his buddy Wes Anderson’s work.

Stiller has said that Mitty is a golden opportunity to redefine his place in the popular imagination. It’s true: The film features all the usual big-budget bells-and-whistles, but with the narrative thrust and experimental touch that usually capture critical acclaim. It looks a bit like feel-good Oscar-bait, and could well devolve into heavy-handed melodrama, à la Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close. But consider this sap on the hook.

Sharan Shetty is a writer for Brow Beat. You can follow him on Twitter


Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.