The first trailer for the long-in-gestation, long-wrestled-over remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has been released, and its main message is that Ben Stiller, who directed and stars in the film, is trying to say something serious.
Mitty, based on James Thurber's short story, was first adapted into a film in 1947 with Danny Kaye in the lead, a classic that has long been deemed impossible to improve upon. Many have tried, though. A Walter Mitty remake has been in some stages of development for at least two decades now, with various directors involved and actors ranging from Owen Wilson to Sacha Baron Cohen to Mike Myers attached to star. But ultimately it was Stiller who landed the role of a repressed and frequently daydreaming photo editor who suddenly finds himself on a wild real-life adventure. In Tad Friend's 2012 New Yorker profile of Stiller, it became clear that Mitty is a true passion project for the actor/director/writer, not simply because it offers a visual challenge, but because there's something else, something introspective and heartfelt, lying beneath the whimsical, eye-popping exterior. Yes, it is indeed that time in Ben Stiller's career, when a comedian's box office riches are not enough, when the great siren song of true artistic Respectability comes wafting, insisting, in through the window.
Or, at least, that's what it looks like from this moody, music-swelling, mostly dialogue-free teaser. We learn that Walter is a regular lonely office worker — well, the overly stylized type that wealthy Hollywood stars imagine, at least; all drab sameness and picturesque ennui — whose days of boredom and coworker abuse are only enlivened by elaborate fantasies (not of the sexual kind, that we can see anyway) involving heroics that enchant his pined-for officemate, played by Kristen Wiig. Will Walter dwell in this place of fantasy forever? Or will something radically alter this too-comfortable white guy's plain existence? Well of course something will, and it seems we're being asked to be carried away by all the grandeur, humor, and bittersweet beauty of it all.
And maybe we will! Some footage was screened at CinemaCon in April and it seemed to go over well. Maybe Stiller really has crafted his Oscar movie, the one that will grant supposed legitimacy to a career that has made people laugh for twenty years. Whether that legitimacy is actually, well, legitimate is a debate for another day, but I'll say now that I'm wary of this picture. Or at least this trailer, with all its packaged awe and Of Monsters and Men warbling dreamily. It seems awfully... formula, this inevitable moment in a comedian's career arriving with such calibrated dramatics. And there's something a bit aping about it too, as if this is Stiller's big-budget attempt at doing Eternal Sunshine, a movie that, perhaps like the original Mitty, needs no improving upon.
But this is, after all, just a trailer. It's altogether possible that we'll all be wowed come Christmastime. Either way, let's hope it doesn't give Seth Rogen any big ideas.