The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is a movie for dreamers – not curmudgeonous realists caught in the mundane rat-race of life. Ben Stiller’s film is a simple story we’ve seen time and time again about how it’s so easy to become engulfed by a laborious nine to five work cycle, as people shove aside passion and adventure for safety and a paycheck. Stiller shows us it’s never too late for that revelatory, life-affirming moment of happiness that opens a multitude of new doors, but compared to other films cut from the same cloth, Walter’s journey is incredibly hard to relate to, and a bit superfluous in nature.
Yes, I’m aware I’m using the word “superfluous” to describe a film that includes a scene where Ben Stiller fights a shark, but you’ll notice as Walter’s exploits drag on, there’s an unshakable hollowness made even more obvious by a sometimes sluggish pace. Stiller’s adaptation is sweet, and somewhat inspiring, but in escaping reality, audiences are left with nothing but a modern-day fairy tale with little emotion to grasp.
The film opens with Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) balancing his checkbook while having an inner debate about “winking” at his co-worker Cheryl Melhoff on the online dating site he joined after hearing she was a member. This is the timid, calculated man Walter is, working the same mundane job for sixteen years, until it’s announced that Life magazine will be running its final release at the end of the month because of an online transition. This of course means layoffs and danger for all the workers in the company, and to make matters worse, Walter can’t find the photo negative sent in by freelance photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) for the final cover. Walter can just get another copy, right? Well, if he can find the elusive O’Connell, who never stays in one country, then yes, maybe – but finding O’Connell might just be the adventure Walter needs in his life.
Stiller deserves an admirable nod for attempting to recreate such a rich story, because The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is a bit of a tonal jumping bean – it’s all over the place. As each scene attempts to peel back another layer of Walter’s daydreaming exterior, the tone shifts about with each varying mood. There are moments of Stiller-inspired goofy comedy, scenes of human drama as Walter fights utter blandness, glimpses of soulful retribution as Walter attempts to take his life back and legitimate action sequences during Walter’s more intense dreaming. There’s enough material here to make even Marty Scorsese’s head spin.
Unfortunately, this is Walter’s downfall. Those viewers mistakenly expecting Ben Stiller’s typical type of Zoolander humor are going to be undoubtedly bored to tears, exemplified by the numerous twenty-somethings who walked out of my screening loudly complaining about how bored they were. Granted, these kids were only victims of their own expectations, but the comedic aspects aren’t Stiller’s usual belly-busters. Likewise, those viewers expecting some transcendentalist dramatic artwork are also going to be let down, as The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is far too lighthearted to be a beautiful tear-jerker. As a director, Ben Stiller gets caught somewhere in this dull, over-produced middle ground that makes for an awkwardly mundane watch – superficial at face-value, in a way.
It’s a shame, because Ben Stiller “the actor” puts on a show as Walter Mitty. He gets to play shy and socially awkward as the business focused Walter, but he also gets to branch out during Walter’s daydreaming spells, doubling as a Latin mountain climber or Matrix-style action star. His typical antics are toned down for the more grounded character of Walter Mitty, attempting to connect with audiences on some level of escapism.
Stiller’s co-star, Kristen Wiig, is a personal favorite of mine. I’m glad she’s getting the attention she deserves with roles in these grand movies, and it’s refreshing to see her play a normal person instead of the outlandish characters she created on SNL. The same can’t be said for Walter’s adversary though, played by Adam Scott, who is stuck in the same business-dick type of role we’ve seen time and time again. His scenes are short, and his time is all but wasted – despite getting to fight Walter in that Matrix-style dream.
The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty offers momentary glimpses into what could have been, but doesn’t deliver a big-picture production on the scale that Stiller hopes for. Stiller certainly shoots for the stars, which can be appreciated during more exciting moments aided by erupting volcanoes and beautiful, “bird’s eye” mountain views, but again, these are all surface pleasures that are easily accepted. Once the real message of Life’s motto is truly explored, it’s hard not feeling like we’ve seen such motivational scripting before – and it’s even harder to embrace a lasting message.
The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty offers a momentary distraction from life's hustle and bustle, but fails to become the kind of life-changing film that will make people jump out of their seats with a whole new personal outlook.