‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ Review: Daydreaming Ben Stiller Emerges for Mostly Charming Life Adventure
*Editor’s note: Our review of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty originally ran during this year’s NYFF, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens wide on Christmas Day.*
The joke of Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an old one – far older than both the James Thurber short story that inspired it and the 1947 Danny Kaye-starring film of the same name – centering on a man so prone to daydreaming that he has ceased to live his life inside the “real world.” It’s hard to blame Walter (Stiller), however, because the real world hasn’t been especially kind to him for a long time. It hasn’t been particularly cruel, either, but Walter has long suppressed his dreams of something more (and of being someone more), and his more creative and individual instincts come out to play in the vivid (and overly effects-laden) daydreams that Walter periodically lapses into (so frequently, in fact, that those closest to him just refer to it as Walter “zoning out” and that’s all there is to it).
The regular life issues that Walter faces are hard enough – a dead dad, an aging mother (Shirley MacLaine), a wacky sister (Kathryn Hahn), a job in a changing industry, a hopeless crush on a clueless co-worker (Kristen Wiig, who isn’t given nearly enough to work with to make the romantic element of the film stick) – so it’s understandable that he would slip into fantasy when things get rough. But Walter’s real world issues eventually grow far too large to be contained inside his head, and suddenly Walter the pretend pioneer has to actually venture out into the world to make the life he wants.
A long-time employee of Life magazine, Walter has sorted the negatives of the magazine’s vast archive of new and old photographs for nearly two decades, and the news that the publication has been bought out and is set to go digital is not good for either him or the work he does. Adam Scott pops up early on to tap into his inner villain to give a (nefariously bearded) face to the film’s central bad guy, the manager in charge of “the transition.” That transition entails putting together a final issue of the magazine – complete with a cover by noted war photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), who has formed a close relationship with Walter (via phone and correspondence, apparently) over the years. Incidentally, Sean has recently shipped Walter a set of negatives, promising that the twenty-fifth one is his best ever, the culmination of his work, and clearly the only choice for a last great Life.
But Walter cannot find the negative.
Walter’s life may be rooted in daydreams, but once convinced that he must track down Sean for assistance in the matter, there’s scarce little resistance on his part (it’s also when the generally pleasing fantasy sequences all but disappear, sadly enough). A running gag throughout the film centers on Walter’s inability to complete his eHarmony profile because he doesn’t have much to brag about (there’s a “been there, done that” section that he can’t round out, because he hasn’t been anywhere or done much of anything). Constantly called by a strangely overenthusiastic eHarmony employee (Patton Oswalt), Walter is forced to continually chat about just how lackluster his life is, though when he makes the decision to wing off to Greenland, he does it with little hesitation. Still stranger is the fact that Walter is passed off as a persnickety penny-pincher, and a looming layoff at work doesn’t seem like the right conditions to book it across the world.
Steve Conrad’s script is riddled with such inconsistencies, even as it makes room for all these seemingly key details (Walter’s dwindling bank account, the financial strain of moving his mother to a home, his tendency to daydream that his life is better). But Stiller’s strong performance and an unabashed dedication to an earnest tone push the film forward, eventually resulting in a very satisfying (and beautifully lensed, thanks to some nifty travel locations) second act. The middle of the film coalesces in a way that the rest of the production can’t (at least with Conrad’s thinly written script weighing everything down), joining performance, tone, and some very funny writing (finally!) together in a pleasurable and amusing way.
It’s clearly what the entire film is aiming for – something that’s whimsical but not overbearing, shaded with fairy tale colors without devolving into the cheesy. But it’s a balance the rest of the film cannot match, unable to walk the line between what is “whimsical” versus what is simply “improbable.” What the film does have to offer is obvious passion, zest, and that full-faced earnestness, so often charming enough to forgive the film’s obvious bid to read as “feel-good” and “life-affirming.” It is those things, on occasion and in some certain measure, and that Stiller is so often close to something profound and filling that make the film’s aims alone worthy of praise. The final product may not live up to its own daydreams, but it’s diverting enough to drift of into for an hour (or two).
The Upside: Ben Stiller gives an impassioned, funny, sweet, and strange performance as Walter; smaller supporting turns by Patton Oswalt and Sean Penn are a lovely surprise; solid soundtrack; a wonderfully cohesive middle act.
The Downside: Kristen Wiig isn’t given much to do in her role as Cheryl, the Walter and Cheryl romance never quite takes hold, the script is very often weak and unable to connect clearly important details.
On the Side: You can read Thurber’s original story here .
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January 07, 2014
» Movie Reviews
Film Review: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
Fantasy and dream
By George Grella
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
The first movie based on James Thurber’s most famous short
story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” was adapted
for the screen back in 1947, starring the multitalented Danny Kaye in the title
role. Walter Mitty, a timid, passive, henpecked
husband, embarrassingly incompetent at ordinary tasks, constantly falls into
daydreams in which he assumes such heroic roles as flying through a storm,
shooting down German aircraft, and performing delicate surgery. Everyday life
triggers his fantasies — a headline about a trial inspires him to see himself
in a courtroom, passing a hospital leads to his surgical feat. The story ends
with a characteristic Thurber touch of comic defeat.
The work seems a natural for the cinema, the art of dreams
and daydreams; film quite naturally exploits the transitions from a present
reality to the insubstantial but far more satisfying subjects of memory and
fantasy. We all dream, after all. We all want to be the heroes of our own
lives. We all need to escape from what one of my favorite authors
calls the deadly rhythm of our private thoughts.
In this adaptation of the story Walter Mitty,
played by Ben Stiller, works for Life magazine, in charge of the negatives
their photographers submit from all over the world. He discovers that the
magazine is folding, moving to an online version, which means he and many
others will lose their jobs. Lonely, burdened by the cost of moving his mother
(Shirley MacLaine) to an assisted-living facility, he
tends to fall into a sort of trance. His fantasies feature him making a
connection with Cheryl Melhof (Kristen Wiig), a young woman at the magazine, rescuing the
inhabitants of a burning building, humiliating the arrogant executive in charge
of the transition.
Walter finds the opportunity to become a hero accidentally,
when he searches for a lost negative from the magazine’s ace photographer, Sean
O’Connell (Sean Penn), intended for the cover of the final issue. He takes off
on a wild and unlikely journey looking for O’Connell, which takes him to
Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan, and the Himalayas. He travels by plane, boat,
bicycle, helicopter, and even skateboard on his quest, encountering eccentric
people and strange adventures along the way.
Although the quest itself takes place in Walter’s “real”
life, he often falls into his daydreams in the midst of what already seems a
fantasy. In one of the oddest and funniest sequences, he encounters a drunken
helicopter pilot singing in the only karaoke bar in Greenland, then discovers
the guy can lead him to the photographer. The chopper promptly drops him in the
sea, which leads to yet another series of adventures and fantasies. At times the
director deliberately fuses and confuses Walter’s actual experiences on his
unusual quest with his usual daydreams.
Although it toys with the visually fascinating concept of
dreams and their possibilities in ordinary life, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” seldom explores the theme with the imagination it
deserves. Walter’s search, the mysteries he must solve, the completely
unsurprising pat ending, and the tiresomely predictable love between him and
Cheryl simply overwhelm the notion of the dream life and its connections to
what we like to regard as real life, that endlessly fascinating subject for the
Ben Stiller has come more and more to resemble Woody Allen in
the sense that he continues to play the same character over and over in all of
his movies, an earnest, naïve victim of an assortment of nasty, plotting dopes,
who ultimately triumphs, mostly through his own innocent good nature. His
Walter Mitty is virtually interchangeable with the
parts he played in “There’s Something About Mary,”
“Meet the Parents,” “The Watch,” and so on. On the other hand, “Walter Mitty” provides him with a Mittyesque
experience, directing a picture in which he plays the adventurous hero of his
own fantasies, possibly a fantasy within a fantasy.
Oddly, the sets play the most interesting part in the movie.
The Time-Life building is the real thing, and the sequences
in Greenland, Iceland, and the East look very real indeed, and employ
people native to those regions. “Walter Mitty” may
not be good, but it looks great.
Tags: Movie Reviews , Ben Stiller , Kristen Wiig , Fantasy
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- Release date
26 Dec 2013
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The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty
Walter Mitty (Stiller) lives his life quietly, afraid to stand up for himself when his job at Life magazine is threatened and scared to confess his feelings to his co-worker, Cheryl (Wiig). He finally embraces life when he loses a vital photo needed for Life’s final issue and the only way to retrieve it is to find the photographer, who could be anywhere in the world.
Walter Mitty is a man, and that’s really about it. He is a person who doesn’t so much defy description as fail to invite it; someone who fades into the background even when he’s alone. He works in the picture department of Life magazine, a once mighty publication that is now closing due to changing markets and passionless moneymen who can’t think outside a spreadsheet. There he fiddles about with negatives and goes unnoticed, even by the one person he’d care to pay attention, newly single accounts worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). But all that is just the outside. Inside Walter is a world of adventure and amazement. In his daydreams he’s the hero who leaps into a burning building to rescue a helpless dog; the brave mountaineer who marches to claim the girl; a warrior who battles bad guys on skyscrapers. Though all anyone else sees is a fortysomething man, staring into nothing. This is the story of turning his inside out.
This version of Walter Mitty is, like the 1947 Danny Kaye film, an adaptation of James Thurber’s 1939 short story, in so far as any feature-length movie can be an adaptation of a story with fewer than 2,000 words. Both take the premise of a man who escapes his own drabness with flights of fancy, and the fact someone else had the original idea should steal no credit from screenwriter Steve Conrad, who has built a plot on a single brick from Thurber. Thurber’s version of Mitty, who has settled for moments of daydreaming in a mundane life, is just the first 20 minutes. The rest, in which Mitty decides daydreaming is not enough, is all invented, and very well.
Mitty is a huge step for Ben Stiller as director. Playing the title character he is quiet and touching, devoid of his signature fits of anger, but he’s always been a talented actor. Compared to the other men who were, at various times, in the waiting room to play the title character — Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Will Ferrell, Sacha Baron Cohen — Stiller is more naturally low-key, less of a show-off. It’s tough to imagine Baron Cohen or Myers doing the underplaying necessary for someone who’s the straight man in every encounter. Fine as he is in front of the camera, Stiller’s never been nearly this impressive behind it. His previous films, particularly the last three — The Cable Guy, Zoolander, Tropic Thunder — have a confident, if sometimes indulgent, comic structure and a large amount of cynicism. They would laugh at things — at the vacuous fashion industry or the self-important film industry — which is a fruitful position for comedy, because it risks very little, but here he’s sincere. Sincerity is difficult in modern cinema. If a single speck of falseness is evident then all deflates into schmaltz, and if you’re sincere without a hint of humour, everyone will go home bored and lectured. The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is funny but not a comedy. Its laughs mostly come from the oddness of situations rather than jokes. Stiller clearly wants his audience to leave thinking and lifted, but not hectored. He’s striving for inspirational, and if you miss that by the smallest margin then you’re left looking hokey. You want to be a Jimmy Stewart movie, not a Robin Williams movie.
The reason it works is because Stiller keeps his eye on what Walter is after. The journey is huge but the goal is small; it won’t change the world, just his own. Walter’s path to a more interesting life begins when he sets himself a quest to track down a negative, sent to him by a reclusive photographer (Sean Penn, with a macho twinkle and magnificent hair) as “the quintessence of Life” and the perfect image for the magazine’s final cover. It’s lost before it even arrives. As the voyage grows, the play with fantasy changes. Early on, Walter’s daydreams will literally crash through into reality, such as in the beautiful moment when he, as a mountain climber, cracks through an office wall to romance Cheryl. But as the story develops and Walter begins an expedition to Greenland the fantasy becomes less heightened, until Walter’s own life becomes magic enough. The melding of imagined and real is done gently, without recourse to any ‘maybe it’s all in his head’ copping out. Stiller is, evidently, at heart just a big romantic.
There are times that he appears nervous about his ability to carry off a Big Film and he scuttles to comfortable ground, falling back on a cheap laugh. A Benjamin Button sequence could have come straight out of Tropic Thunder and its goofiness, while funny, sits clumsily. But Stiller has it. He’s up to the task. This is an intense workout for a director. There are action sequences (in the air, in the water and involving superpowers), there is romantic comedy, there is a touch of The Apartment-style corporate drama, there is a volcanic explosion and a bit with a shark. There’s a brilliant shot telling the history of a magazine with just a dash down a hall (it must be said that Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography is wondrous throughout), and some ingenious use of text. It’s all very ‘look what I can do, Ma’, but comes off not as showing off so much as having fun playing. It would be no surprise if he now finds himself on the director shortlist for just about any big project looking for a steady hand.
Necessarily, though, it is not just a series of set-pieces; Stiller’s found a grasp on emotion he hasn’t shown before and a view on the world (a bit exasperated at the generation that photographs everything but looks at nothing). The most striking scene in the film is just two men, sitting on a ledge, watching the world and letting a moment disappear. The whimsy, gorgeous as it is, is all bonded together by the simplicity of a man who for all the wonders he sees, both inside and outside his own head, is just looking for a bit of reality that is his.
As a director, this feels like Stillers moment. Mitty is a film that bravely rejects cynicism. In many ways, its the new Forrest Gump. Go with it and it is, in all senses, wonderful.