Stephen Fry was once asked about the difference between American and British comedy. “In American comedy,” he said as part of an insightful reply that would soon go viral online, “the comic is above the idiots around him. In British comedy, the comedian is the one getting shit on by life.”
It might sound a little strange for me to bring up British comedy in a review of an American adaptation of a short story by the quintessentially American humorist James Thurber. But not for nothing is the only authentic cinematic adaptation of Thurber’s work, the 1959 Peter Sellers comedy The Battle of the Sexes. Unlike the slapstick 1947 Samuel Goldwyn adaptation of Walter Mitty — so different in tone from Thurber’s story that he dubbed the film “The Public Life of Danny Kaye” — that film, based on The Catbird Seat, captured perfectly the Thurberian male protagonist in all his glory: small and timid, hemmed in by the overbearing world around him (mostly represented by an overbearing woman), looking for some sort of escape, wishing for some sort of control over his life. It is a sensibility that is close to the heart of what makes British comedy; the victory of the protagonist, if at all he is allowed to taste victory, is invariably small, not the ticker-tape happy ending Hollywood lives for.
Walter Mitty, in Thurber’s 1939 New Yorker story, is a hen-pecked husband living a mundane life in rural Connecticut who escapes the banality of his existence by daydreaming about all sorts of exciting adventures. Thurber doesn’t afford him a happy ending; the story ends with a final vision of Mitty leaning against a wall, smoking a cigarette, facing an imaginary firing squad. His only victory is gathering the courage to tell his wife to let him and his visions be. (“I’m going to take your temperature when I get you home,” his wife replies.)
In Ben Stiller’s adaptation though, Mitty gets to live the adventure he seeks, which does wonders for his eHarmony profile. He gets the girl he’s been pining for. He even gets to tell off the corporate drone who is taking apart Life magazine, while providing the magazine with an appropriate cover photo for the last issue that captures the “quintessence of Life”.
Stiller makes Mitty’s visions a personality tic, with little examination of why he has them, apart from a few references to how his dreams of seeing the world were crushed by having to support his family after his father’s death. Instead, the focus is on the ridicule he faces for zoning out in the middle of conversations. His primary antagonist, the aforementioned corporate drone (Scott), who refuses to take him seriously because of his tenuous grip on reality. “Ground control to Major Tom,” he taunts him during one of his reveries, setting up the film’s most uplifting moment, of Mitty running into a helicopter piloted by a very drunk Greenlander with David Bowie’s satirical song about Britain’s failed space programme, reimagined here as a call to go forth and live life to the hilt, blaring in the background.
This tendency of the film to fit its plot into the familiar Hollywood story of the triumph of the human spirit makes Walter Mitty seem trite. Stiller’s heavy directorial foot, the forced sensitivity he infuses into every scene and the overall lack of substance, makes it seem inauthentic and indulgent. But excellent writing and great understated performances make it eminently watchable, an engaging film that takes you on a journey you are all too willing to undertake. Just where that journey leads you, however, remains a mystery.