– Summary –
Director : Ben Stiller
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn, Patton Oswalt, Jon Daly.
Approx Running Time : 114 Minutes
Synopsis: Walter Mitty, a boring, subordinate LIFE Magazine employee facing imminent redundancy, must track down an erstwhile photographer and locate a missing photograph.
What we think : In the moment, Walter Mitty is often hilarious, always gorgeous, and occasionally heavy-handed, but the fact that it barely registers a pulse once the closing credits come along is rather telling. I thought Ben Stiller’s performance (and direction, since he pulled double duty on this one) was nicely restrained, but the balance between Mitty’s daydreams and the eventual reality felt too trite and manufactured to really hit home. It’s superficially entertaining, but the life lesson to be learned feels too hammered and in-yo-face than it needs to be, which goes a long way to making the whole film feel too pointed and condescending.
Yeah, we’ve all done it – zoned out midway through our daily grind and fantasized about an alternate reality where we’re either super rich, super sexy, super famous, or some combination of all three. No? That’s just me? Well then. The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is a story about a daydreamer, a man with a small world-footprint who has to take the step out of his comfort zone and into a wider, more adventurous life. He’s an office drone, introverted and painfully inept at talking to women, especially the object of his affection, and lives a fairly solitary existence having achieved almost zero in his time on this planet. You can probably guess where Walter Mitty’s story will end up – getting the girl, changing his life, and making a point about living each day as if it’s your last – and the story never really strays from this, which works for and against the movie overall. Ben Stiller, who not only stars but directs too, has made a visually beautiful film, that’s a certainty, but an iffy humor and the sense that the whole thing is one giant motivational video leaves things a little undercooked. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty strives for… something, I guess, but Stiller can’t really deliver a film that lives up to its wide-screen expectation.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) works at Time LIFE Magazine, as a Negative Assets Manager (handling the film negatives for the magazine’s photography division), where he is the point man for wandering photo-journalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). Mitty lives a reclusive, timid life, with an inability to communicate with any non-work related chatter, nor with a social life of any kind. Even his eHarmony profile reflects a complete lack of accomplishment, as established by the fact that Walter has a better relationship with site consultant Todd (Patton Oswalt) than he does with anyone else in his personal life. Walter’s sister Odessa (Kathryn Hahn) is a carefree actress living her dream, while his mother Edna (Shirley MacLaine) is moving into a retirement community; Walter’s magazine has recently been acquired, and is about to be downsized from a print publication to an online facility thanks to corporate razor-blade Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott, with one of the worst beards in cinema history). Walter has a crush on fellow employee Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), with whom he bonds over trying to locate O’Connell around the globe when a valuable photograph goes missing. Walter’s journey takes in Iceland, Greenland, and other isolated landscapes, all as he searches for his precious lost photograph.
Ben Stiller’s one of those actors I have difficulty with. On the one hand, much of his comedic output is relatively low-brow (Zoolander) and hit-n-miss (Duplex), while one the other, some of his career have been rightly considered modern classics (Tropic Thunder, Meet The Fockers). His comedy style is largely hit and miss, although he’s done his best work playing the straight man against other comedians and dramatic actors. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty sees him stick to his restrained, withdrawn characterization – Mitty’s something of a loser, albeit a sympathetic one, when the film opens. Stiller’s doe-eyed puppy-dog look comes in for a thorough workout, at least until he starts to travel the globe searching for O’Connell, and then he becomes this “Indiana Jones meets Bear Grylls” type, when the stubble and roughed-up look take over. Throughout, though, Stiller gives Mitty a placid, non-confrontational personality, which is fair considering the personal journey he has to go on through the narrative, yet the extremes of his character don’t feel far enough apart to make the journey worthwhile. Mitty might be a loser, but he’s not that big a loser.
Part of the humor the film goes with it Walter’s constant fantasies (or zone-outs), and they are more often the funniest parts of the whole film. Mitty’s leap into an exploding building to rescue a three-legged puppy for his lady-love is one of the highlights – as is the subsequent realization that while he was daydreaming, he missed his train. This kind of ironic, life-less-lived humor is sprinkled liberally but thinly through the movie, until Mitty takes off on his grand adventure (I half expected to see a couple of Hobbits wander across the landscape of Greenland midway through this) and there’s less fantasy and more reality for Stiller to play with. A nice moment with an erupting volcano is another highlight. Yet, for all its attempts at humor (including a lengthy scene with a drunken helicopter pilot, that feels a little too stretched for my liking), Walter Mitty isn’t what you’d consider an out-and-out comedy riot. It plays more like a dramady, with heavier focus on Mitty’s personal growth and the lesson he learns in being a better person; it’s hokey at times, and I had to swallow hard considering the main message seems to be that if you’re not out scaling Everest or locating near-extinct exotic animals you’re not really living (really? I have a hard time just getting out of bed most mornings without tripping over the kid’s toys!). If this is what I have to live up to, perhaps I too haven’t really lived.
Yeah, it’s a motivational movie about fulfilling your potential, but it belabors the point a little too often, wallowing in its self-indulgence when it should be striving for a better balance between the pathos and the laughs. The film rings hollow at times, mainly because I couldn’t ever tell if Stiller was going to crack a joke at the wrong moment or not (he doesn’t, so don’t worry), and also because Mitty’s transition from never-do to go-getter is fairly rapid – in relation to his life in the film, that is. Stiller directs this with a skilled eye, and the work of DP Stuart Dryburgh is absolutely world class (not nominated for an Oscar? What the hell?), yet it’s all for a minimal impact when the story – or perhaps the characters, none of whom are particularly memorable other than Adam Scott, as the douche-bag corporate knob who wants to sack everyone – just feels too manufactured to jag my attention.
Stiller aside, the film does feature some nice performances. Kristen Wiig is breezily charming as Cheryl, the object of Walter’s affections, although it appears she’s kind of a lost soul too (Cheryl also has an account on eHarmony). Watch out for Shirley MacLaine wasting her time as Stiller’s on-screen mother – it’s a glorified cameo and adds only minimal weight to Walter’s story, but it’s nice to see her getting some work – and Kathryn Hahn must surely feel short-changed considering it seems like a lot of her better scenes were left on the cutting room floor. Sean Penn pops in as O’Connell late in the piece, and watch for Adrian Martinez stealing his scenes with Stiller as Hernando, an understudy at LIFE. But the highlight for me (other than Stiller’s charming Mitty) is Adam Scott as one of the most odious corporate wankers in recent screen history. Complete with utterly terrible facial hair, Scott is an outright asshat in the role, delivering the perfect bully-boy foil for Mitty’s non-confrontational persona. Definitely a contender for Horrible Bosses 2. Frankly, Scott is probably the most memorable character in the whole film, which says a lot as to just how unbalanced the movie really is.
The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty says a lot, but delivers frightfully little in the way of meaningful emotional content. It feels like Stiller was looking at one of those cheesy motivational posters many offices have hanging on their walls, and decided to make a film about it. There’s plenty of good intentions in Mitty’s journey, and I have no doubt this film will find itself an audience willing to embrace it’s Hallmark-card messages, but more often than not it all fell a little flat when it should have soared. Well filmed, criminally robbed for a cinematography Oscar nomination, and featuring some nice supporting performances, the 2013 version of Walter Mitty doesn’t achieve the desired outcome -like a pauper’s Forrest Gump, it’s one of the chocolates that should probably be left in the box.