Review by Alec R. Lee
It’s cute, it’s whimsical, and it’s not Night at the Smithsonian. Based on the 1930s short story, Ben Stiller’s fifth directorial effort: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has received a lukewarm critical response, and yet audiences are still flocking in droves to see it, the details of which to be explained later. This movie is the latest since Stiller’s Tropic Thunder and the two movies are quite different in terms of tone. Tropic Thunder was dark and very, very adult centric, but Walter Mitty appeals to all ages. This movie, to sum it up, is a more personal tale that Stiller undoubtedly wanted to endeavor upon, perhaps making a buzz come award season. I personally doubt that it will receive any Oscars due to the fact that mixed critical reception tends to drive judges away from casting votes in its favor (remember Zero Dark Thirty? Or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close?). Whatever the outcome, Stiller can at least be commended for presenting a take on a short story that has a good amount of charm, a feel good movie for the family.
Walter Mitty is an employee for the off-again, on-again magazine Life, and is responsible for organizing the photo negatives the office receives. Mitty is shown to daydream a lot, mostly fantasizing that he is a more adventurous person, having never done or gone anywhere interesting in his eyes, and desiring to ask a coworker out on a date. This is emphasized by his conversations with an eHarmony employee trying to make his online profile more presentable. One of Mitty’s photographic idols, Sean O’Connell, sends in a set of photos that the magazine wants to use for its final issue (in the movie, Life is depicted as being in the middle of an acquisition and is downsizing so that it can enter the online market) but the photo that the magazine wants is missing from the photo set. With the threat of losing his job, Mitty leaves his sphere of comfort and journeys across the world to locate O’Connell and find the missing photo for the magazine.
Watching Stiller’s character slowly gain the confidence throughout his travels is a great way of connecting with the audience. Walter Mitty symbolizes the average human and that when the perfect opportunity comes along, he runs and grabs the chance to just live. You see him have the most fun he’s ever had in his life and he becomes more confident in his talks with his coworker. The daydream sequences are also fun to behold as they show the kind of person that Mitty aspires to be (sometimes in an over the top fashion, but that’s just fun). The cinematography of the places that Walter visits is very effective and Theodore Shapiro’s score over-dramatizes certain scenes but these moments work with respect to the film. My only gripe would be that sometimes the daydream sequences are hard to tell from the real world. I realize that’s the entire point of the film, but there were times when I would be caught off guard before my brain could say, “Oh wait, this isn’t real.” If you watch the film you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Ben Stiller as Walter Mitty is perfect for the role. In contrast to several hyper characters he’s portrayed in the past, he treats Mitty with a quiet reserve, a man who hasn’t discovered his true potential. Seeing his behavior gradually change on screen really is a huge plus of the film. Kristen Wiig as Mitty’s coworker treats her role very plainly, and that’s fine. Her character is not over-sexed or abnormal in any way. She’s just a nice human being and that represents a realistic goal that Mitty is trying to achieve by having enough courage to ask her out. Supporting characters like Sean Penn and Adam Scott are fine in their roles (though Scott’s beard…whooof). Patton Oswalt also has a funny turn as an eHarmony employee. Now that you mention it, there are several instances of product placement such as Papa John’s, eHarmony, and Cinnabons, but unlike Man of Steel, they aren’t as forced on the audience (or are just presented more naturally).
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a well made film. It may lack the satirical edge the original short story had but that holds no bearing here. This version feels like an advertisement to get outdoors and do anything besides sitting down and watching TV (it kinda works). That’s probably why the target audience appears to be aimed at the middle aged population, as they have been jaded working at their jobs that they also secretly desire to do something else, and this movie represents their beliefs. I personally enjoyed it but I will admit that there are going to be people that get more out of this movie than I did (I am still frankly naive to how the world works, admittedly) and will be more upset at how they wasted their life sitting in a cube. But, if you suddenly harbor a desire to longboard down a volcano at high speeds after viewing this movie, I can sympathize completely.
Final Score: 80/100