By Will Ashton | firstname.lastname@example.org| @thewillofash
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty | Directed by Ben Stiller | Rated PG
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty attempts to capture something most people can relate to: the power of one’s own imagination. But what happens when the film about imagination gets lost in its own creative restraints?
Walter Mitty lives a very ordinary life. He lives by himself in a plain, white apartment and goes to work everyday as the photo negative processor at Life Magazine with his same light brown jacket and silver briefcase. He has serious feelings for the new girl, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristin Wiig), but doesn’t have the guts to go up and tell her so. He’s been doing the same job for 16 years, but seems to get little respect or attention for doing so, especially when a new boss Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott, with a terrible fake beard) comes in telling him and his staff that they will soon be working on the last printed edition to Life Magazine ever.
Walter is only able to escape the mundane nature of his life through his elaborate and free-flowing imagination, which often causes him to be laughed at or joked upon by his peers. If this wasn’t bad enough, Mitty finds out that the negative for the photo meant to be the be all, end all cover for the magazine is lost. As the pressure becomes more insistent, Walter goes on a journey around the world to find the photographer who would know where his missing photo is located.
I remember reading James Thurber’s short story of the same name in 11th grade English class. It may not have been the greatest short story I have ever read, but it was a pleasant and enjoyable, if slight, one that read well and kept its ambitions low. It was just the story of a guy who lived an ordinary life, but dreamed himself a bigger, better man. Simple enough.
I, unfortunately, have not gotten to see the 1947 film adaptation starring Danny Kaye, but I have heard good things. It may be slight, but I’m sure that a good film can be made out of this story. It leaves room for a lot of potential, especially in its dream sequences. Which is why I was excited to see Stiller’s adaptation of the story. In addition to the fact that he has proven himself to be a competent and assured director, his strong sense of comedic timing and characters seems to fall in line with what Thurber wrote in his original story. While he may not have been my first choice, I figured that Stiller would come up with a distinct, modern way to bring this timeless story back to the big screen.
For a film about a person’s imagination, Walter Mitty is a surprisingly unimaginative film. That’s not so much to say that it’s not inspired, at least in parts, but it’s story leaves a lot to be desired. While I have been a supporter of screenwriter Steve Conrad work in the past (The Weather Man remains one of the most underrated dark comedies of the past decade), his clumsy, repetitive script is the biggest fault of the film. Often, the film is at odds with how to tell its story, shoehorning fantasy sequences because they are such a vital part of the source material and often relying on safe, rather family friendly plot devices and themes to deliver its cookie cutter message of adventure and hope to audiences everywhere.
While Stiller’s direction is typically confident, he doesn’t seem to know how to smoothly transition between reality and fantasy. While some dream sequences are fun (one involving a fight between Stiller and Scott is surprisingly breezy, inspired and well-done, save for some wonky CGI), most of them feel forced or simply unnecessary to the plot at hand. Unexpectedly, it’s the reality sequences that are more interesting and engaging than the fantasy ones. It’s clear that Stiller wants to make Walter more than just a plain Jane character, both as a filmmaker and as an actor. But most of Walter’s “unique” characteristics are rarely explored in a meaningful or fruitful way, and ultimately come about just when it’s convenient to the overall plot.
Oddly enough, the film is at its most effective in its second act, when Stiller and Conrad throw away the dream sequences and let Walter go on his adventure. They finally let Walter grow in a natural, efficient manner, without awkwardly fitting in fantasy and comedy segments, and allow the audience to enjoy some breathtaking shots of Greenland and Iceland to play out onto the screen. It’s only when the film starts to shove in some heavy-handed themes, eye-rolling metaphors and dialogue and show unrealistic character actions for the sake of the plot that the film goes back to its meandering, typically safe plotting.
The film is not a disaster, though. There’s no denying that Walter Mitty is a gorgeous looking film, with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh continuing to make Greenland, Iceland and the Himalayas as beautiful as ever (in case they were ever at risk of not being so). Performances all around are fine as well, particularly from Shirley MacLaine and Sean Penn in their too-short appearances.
Plus, there are moments where the movie’s sentimentality works, often when they are used in small doses. One scene involving a cameo from a popular late night talk show host is effective in explaining Walter’s emotional state-of-mind, while the opening segments, before the first dream sequence awkwardly comes into the film, are good enough at establishing Walter’s personality. Also, the scene between Stiller and Penn is small, but nice little moment that only starts to get super cliché and cheesy at the very end. The problem, however, is that these segments are too far and few between to make the movie stand on its own. They work in their little moments, but fail to carry the overall film. They are nice, but too minimal to work effectively as a whole.
Also, just a side note, the product placement here is particularly egregious. I get that they need to sell their movie, but do you need to shoehorn in the Chase bank logo in the middle of the screen, or mention eHarmony every 25 minutes or have Patton Oswalt rave about Cinnabon for two minutes?
It’s hard to call Walter Mitty an unambitious film, because Stiller’s heart was clearly in the right place and it’s obvious that he wanted to make a crowd-pleasing, feel-good film. And I’m sure he will have succeeded with some audience members who go into this movie demanding little more than a sweet, earnest film and getting that much in return. While the movie is certainly good-willed, and I like that Stiller is trying to push himself as a director beyond broad comedy, he is too restrained by his own sentimentality to make something meaningful with this story.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is not a bad film, per se. It’s just a largely toothless, safe one. I’m being a little too harsh on Stiller. There’s no faulting him for ambition here, but his film’s overbearing, uneven themes and tones can’t help the film live out its simple desires. At most, this film may be a hapless time out at the movies, but the reality of it all is that this daydream could have been so much more.