The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Review
Ben Stilller's newest effort is beautifully wrought and surprisingly sly, but proves more aloof than its title character.
In a world with so many various forms of diversion and multimedia entertainment, finding time to live in one’s own head can be difficult. Indeed, when the whole of the global community—not to mention your emails, bank statements and Facebook—is sitting in your pocket, it is a perversity to be distracted. Perhaps that is why Ben Stiller so ambitiously attempts to analyze the legendary Secret Life of Walter Mitty in this latest adaptation of the James Thurber classic. It is also probably why that “secret life” is now more akin to a weekend hobby. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was an ode to the hopeless romantics, or just the hopeless, when originally created in 1939. As a short story about a man trying to escape his domineering wife, Hollywood etiquette (probably) wisely changed the pestering to that of an overbearing mother in the 1947 film adaptation starring Danny Kay, who got out from under her thumb when his singing fantasies collided with a wise guy reality. However, Stiller, always the funnyman, intriguingly goes for something a little more lyrical and somber in his ambitious, fifth directorial effort. It attempts to explain why Walter would listlessly retreat into his imagination, and in the process creates one of the most visually beautiful films of the year. Unfortunately, it can also prove to be more aloof than any iterations of its hero. In 2013, Walter Mitty is no longer meek or foppish, but painfully introverted after a family tragedy from his youth. He lives for his work as the man responsible for processing negatives at Life Magazine, but who ironically has no life of his own. Instead, he vicariously imagines the worlds perused by Life’s chief photographer, the enigmatic Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), and pines from a distance for the magazine’s newest employee, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). Unlike previous iterations, Walter Mitty does not escape to his secret life to avoid reality, but to rationalize the emptiness of his own. Ultimately, all of his fantasies are about getting Cheryl, or at least his own back with a nasty “transitional” boss played with supreme smugness by Adam Scott. This Secret Life of Walter Mitty is not the story of a man who lives in other worlds, but of one who is finally coming to accept the wonders of our own. The movie is forced to tow an unenviable position of trying to pay homage to its source material, as well as the cinematic heritage of the 1947 iteration, while being an entirely different premise. Crafted around a pitch by screenwriter Steve Conrad, this is a film about a man coming out of his shell. Consequentially, the more fascinating influences coming from this mid-20th century fiction are out of the movie’s unabashed celebration for the workingman, and the sense of community amongst 9-to-5 stiffs. Walter’s third act heroics stem from a desire to stop the layoffs of an overzealous middle management villain, and have almost nothing to do with his comparatively tame mental vacations. The theme of the little guy versus corporate hegemony can be down right Capra-esque, complete with Ben Stiller as a would-be world traveler whose life was permanently put on hold when his father croaked. He’s just a little later than George Bailey at finding a Mary that makes it all worthwhile. As the center of the movie, Wiig and Stiller have an affable rapport, which is crucial when one can nearly count their number of scenes upon a single hand. Every time Wiig appears, Stiller perks up along with the rest of the audience at seeing the talented actress play neither one of her demented SNL creations or another 30-something neurotic. Despite Walter’s globetrotting adventures, theirs is a very nice, if underdeveloped, Manhattan romance in the middle of the picture, as clearly defined with the requisite walk through Central Park. However, the movie only finds momentum during the second hour. After it has become evident that Sean has failed to package a negative, one that he swears in a letter will answer the quintessence of life, the fate of Walter’s job, as well as his one employee (Adrian Martiniez), will depend on Walter retrieving the bounty and putting it on the final cover of Life Magazine’s print run. At this moment, the film almost entirely drops “the secret life” for one that is a cross between Nick Carraway and Indiana Jones. Mitty follows Sean’s trail from Greenland to Iceland to Yemen and to even Afghanistan. It is a lovely fairy tale that is almost as surreal as Walter Mitty’s daydreams. And it’s also far more entertaining. By the third act, it is obvious that Stiller is most interested in pushing himself as a visualist and a storyteller who need not rely on movie stars in black face. And when his nebbish Walter is growing a five o’clock shadow and jumping into the North Atlantic while avoiding the fins of what are hopefully porpoises, his movie is at its most engrossing. Yet, even that is at arm’s length. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty rushes into its late love letter to life, which it views on a canvas far bigger than any of Walter’s earlier flights of fancy, because it must first go through the motions of a rather rote set-up. Stiller finds some meaning in these earlier acts with the quieter beauty hidden within the existence of the unremarkable, which he decorates in an impressive abstract palate that is a credit to Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography, but that still ultimately serves as a springboard rather than a narrative. Incidentally, Walter’s daydreams are now far more run-of-the-mill variations on Jason Bourne-like fistfights with his boss and Spider-Man inspired feats of acrobatics (plus one bizarrely amusing David Fincher riff). If it is meant to be a satire of what mesmerizes us today, it is surprisingly wooden for most of its delivery from a filmmaker with other things on his own preoccupied mind. Stiller succeeds at finding stunningly picturesque locations later in his film when Walter visits the less cinematically exploited lands of ice and snow to the North, as well as those in the Middle East. There is a clever, understated sense to the humor about introverted Walter climbing a giant mountain, which is only occasionally punctuated by self-awareness from the welcome phone calls of Patton Oswald (Walter’s eHarmony guru and sometimes-conscience) who’s carrier has AMAZING reception. Truly, Walter’s life is a far bigger fairy tale than the one inside his head. How could it not be when he exists in a New York that still has a monthly printing of Life and an appreciation for photojournalism? The bigger fantasy comes from the hero’s worldwide arc. Thus any segue into his own head becomes an annoyance and interruption for the viewer. It appears that in the 21st century, even Walter Mitty doesn’t have time for fables, even if he is living in a broader one. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty features stunning visuals and earnest sentimentality that will likely endear a much larger audience than myself when it opens on Christmas Day. But for all its visceral aspirations, I am left wanting more of the film Stiller and Conrad pursued in the second half than the disjointed compromise they settled for on the whole. It’s still a pretty picture with a warm center, but the same can be said of postcards.Den of Geek Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Stars