NYFF Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Walter Mitty is one of the most iconic characters in literary history. He’s become a character type who has been used to described countless other characters in popular culture since his invention by James Thurber. But the actual short story is rather tiny (only two pages in most print editions) which leaves film adaptations open to interpretations and rather free to add to and change the story at will. The Danny Kaye film has become a minor classic with a large fandom, particularly devoted to Kaye’s musical-comedy performance. Enter the modern version, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
Now an adaption of the story has been given a modern day twist. Sort of. It took me some time to determine if this film was set in present day or 2000, when Life Magazine actually did end it’s monthly publication to focus on online and publishing keepsake issues. Eventually it becomes clear that yes, in this alternative world Life Magazine still exists and is just now being pulled from magazine stands. Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty works in the photo negative department and can’t find the photograph sent by the star photographer (and Mitty’s personal hero) Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) which was to be the last cover. Encouraged by new employee Cheryl (Kristin Wiig), he decides to track Sean down on a ship in Greenland.
Logic isn’t The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’s strong suit, and for fantasy-adventure films that is rarely a problem. But the movie never fully embraces it’s fantastical elements, so the logical missteps standout and call Mitty’s character into question. Mitty in general is a problematic character because he’s drawn as such an “everyman” that he seems underdeveloped and shallow. We are supposed to find him to be the charming, mister nice guy, but we’re told that by director-star Stiller, rather than actually seeing it first hand. Because Mitty is just a blank slate for a majority of the film, every characteristic attributed to him will have to come from your association with Stiller’s own screen persona. And while Stiller is a great actor and brilliant comedic mind, he isn’t a personality who has ever struck me as warm. He is at his best when cynical (Royal Tennenbaums, Reality Bites) or unaware of his own idiocy (Zoolander). As Walter, Stiller is never shy or awkward enough to suggest that he is the sheltered character we’re told he is over and over again. This is one film which needed a Jimmy Stewart but got a Cary Grant (and being the director, the blame in this miscasting can only fall on Stiller’s shoulders).
The sketch comedy quality of Non sequiturThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty fantasy sequences don’t help to illuminate his real personality or “secret life.” They are for the most part nothing but action sequences or film parodies which are dropped from the movie almost halfway through. In fact, the fantasies actually hurt the film’s pacing and become an annoyance. The problem is, while the film looks great and uses the scope and natural beauty of its locations, there is nothing especially engaging or cinematically different about these fantasies to differentiate them from the rest of the film. Instead, Stiller simply uses special effects to stage comical action scenes which are fit into the film’s actual narrative with the subtly of a Family Guy non sequitur. Personally, I would have rather seen something in the vein of those directors who embrace the challenge of merging fantasy and realism in films, the way Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry do in all their films. Instead we just get bland movie parodies – the kind you’d see on the MTV movie awards shows.
As for the rest of the cast, they are largely wasted in underwritten roles by Steve Conrad. Kristin Wiig is just “the girl” and any of the comic sensibilities she would normally bring to a role naturally has been washed out. Kathryn Hahn is primarily given the film’s “big laughs,” although her sitcom-type “awkward sister” never fits the movie’s otherwise natural tone and is more an annoyance than the breath of fresh air I think she’s supposed to be. Adam Scott is probably given the hardest character to play, as the cartoonish villain boss of Mitty who is about as intelligent as Gary Cole in Office Space and as oddly aggressive as William Zabka in The Karate Kid. Only Shirley MacLaine and Sean Penn get a few moments of emotional truth in their brief appearances.
The strength of the movie is not in character or narrative, but the film’s visual qualities and the movie does succeed as a travel-log film. The use of locations make for some striking scenes and the decisions by Stiller and his production team to film in real locations was a good one. There are moments, even when well aware that stiller is using stunt doubles, that the decision to use practical effects and locations make for some thrilling scenes. But my favorite of these travel scenes, like his visit to a karaoke bar or time aboard a tanker, are when he’s interacting with people from their, and those scenes are all too brief. Instead of being given the opportunity to get to know these characters (and also something about Mitty), Stiller cuts to extended montages of Mitty alone doing something adventurous in a beautiful place over blaring alternative pop music.
Watching the movie I was struck by how the film reminded me of one of my favorite films from the 80s, Local Hero (a theory confirmed during Stiller’s press conference) but the difference in that film, compared to Walter Mitty, is that a big part of the travel experience and magical effect the land had on the main character, had to do with his meeting and engaging with residents. Mitty never does engage with these people, or anyone, so it’s very hard to become emotionally invested in him. And considering all that, the message conveyed in the final scene about the importance of people, rings false; I don’t believe the filmmakers believe their own lesson as much as they think it’s what they believe their audience wants to hear.
I have no doubt that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was made with all the heart and earnestness in the world and there isn’t a nasty, cynical element behind it. But this is a movie which needed a lighter, more intimate touch than it has. The audience shouldn’t feel that the movie is banging it’s message and sentimentality into our heads with hammers, but simply should float from the screen to the audience naturally. There is absolutely still room for Capra-esque populism in modern filmmaking, but this one is a little to self-aware of it’s intentions to be that next great film.
A Gallery of Images from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Watch The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Trailer