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Non-Review Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Ben Stiller recently explained that he was growing more interested in directing and less interested in acting in front of the camera. Even if he hadn’t confessed that in an interview, it would be hard to shake that feeling while watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It’s beautifully shot and contains a number of impressive sequences and set pieces, but ultimately feels a little hollow – like a beautifully-sketched picture inhabited by two-dimensional characters.

There are moments of splendor and beauty to be found in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but often in spite Steve Conrad’s script rather than because of it.

Daydream believer...

Daydream believer…

It seems a bit trite to point out that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has very little in common with the 1939 James Thurber short story. Keeping the main character’s name and the day dream motif, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty bounds off in its own direction. There’s none of the cynical wit or wry brilliance of what has been described as one of Thurber’s “acknowledged masterpieces.” Instead, this is very much a big budget feel-good Christmas family film.

And, on those terms, it works reasonably well. The script is decidedly ropey and more than a little tone-deaf. A strange extended gag at the expense of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button dates the movie absurdly while adding nothing to the plot. Indeed, Mitty’s imagination becomes a lot less impressive if it’s powered by Oscar nominees from half-a-decade ago. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a lot more effective when it’s willing to crack open office walls like egg-shells or play with the background imagery.

On top of the world...

On top of the world…

Indeed, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty doesn’t really work as a story on its own terms. The story follows the eponymous daydreamer who finds his world turned upside down when an important photograph goes missing. Promising to capture “the quintessence of Life” for the cover of the final edition of Life magazine, Mitty finds himself embarking on an adventure that he never would have dreamt about in his time as the company’s “negative assets manager.”

There’s not too much that holds together about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The resolution to the mystery of the missing photography turns out to be relatively trite. In the final act, the missing photo manages to balloon somehow into an entire “photo essay.” There’s no real focus on the shutting down of Life magazine or the lives of people involved. The notion that Life is going exclusively on-line is treated as a nebulously bad thing, but with no real reason offered. (After all, if the market can’t sustain the publication of a news stand magazine, why is turning it into an on-line journal treated as a cynical ploy?)

Perfect shot...

Perfect shot…

None of the characters inhabiting The Secret Life of Walter Mitty feel real. They are all cartoons. Kathryn Hahn plays Walter’s self-centred actress sister. Adam Scott is Mitty’s jackass new boss, supervising the transition of the magazine from one form to another. Sean Penn is the absent-minded creative genius photographer. None of these characters seem in any way complex or multi-faceted. Which is a shame – given the movie’s flights of fancy, it would have made sense to ground Mitty’s ever-day life in characters who felt more real and developed.

There’s a similar problem with Mitty’s imaginative segues. Mitty’s fantasies all too often feel like generic action movie clichés piled on top of one another – they are cute gags that often become over-extended and a little too conventional. For example, an extended duel of a Stretch Armstrong toy is packed with wonderful visual imagery – concrete skis! gravel snowboard! – but the irony isn’t strong enough to distinguish it from a similar scene in any number of summer blockbusters.

He comes with baggage...

He comes with baggage…

Stiller works better when he’s given more freedom – framing shots effectively or having Mitty’s fantasies feel a bit like they’re exploding into the real world. One particularly effective shot has the grey office space giving way to a glacial landscape, or sees another character beckoning to Walter from inside a still photo with only the most minute of movement at any given moment to lend the shot a decidedly ethereal quality.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty fairs much better as a demonstration of Ben Stiller’s directorial ability than it does as a story. Stiller demonstrated considerable technical craft in piecing together his debut Zoolander. However, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a decidedly more ambitious affair. Often working against an over-written and schmaltzy script, Stiller occasionally manages to find truly effective moments as he documents the one great adventure of his day-dreaming protagonist.

Photo finish...

Photo finish…

The most affecting sequences in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty are often light on dialogue. Stiller tends to amp up the pop songs on the sound track a little bit too high, but he constructs effective montages to the tune of Wake Up or Space Oddity. One particularly effective sequence sets the motto of Life against a series of quick shots of Mitty committing to his course of action. The camera is constantly movie, brushing over altered signs conveying snippets of that motto. There’s a clear sense of momentum in these sequences, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the energy or emotion of Walter Mitty’s great big adventure.

When The Secret Life of Walter Mitty allows Stiller freedom to move, the movie really takes off. There’s something endearingly earnest in the movie’s sentimentality. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty lacks any of the bite of the short story that inspired it, but it compensates with a lot of traditional “feel good” elements. Which is pretty much what you expect from a big Christmas movie – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is aimed squarely at families who want to see something during the holidays, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

A cool customer...

A cool customer…

“Sentimental” is often used in a dismissive or a pejorative sense, and that’s understandable. It’s often hard to manage that sort of sweet sincerity without becoming trite or cliché. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty walks that line for most of its runtime. How effective a given emotion sequences are depends on whether the movie is relying on Conrad’s dialogue or Stiller’s imagery to convey that sentiment. Whenever two characters share an extended sequence together, it becomes hard to suppress the groans, but the film comes closest to working when Mitty strikes out on his own without anybody to converse against.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is far from a satisfying film. It’s too all over the map to really resonate – a flaw it arguably shares with its lead character. At the same time, Stiller’s direction does lend the movie an endearing charm. The movie might not bound with the necessary imagination, but it looks and sounds quite striking. Sadly, that’s not quite enough.

11 Responses

  1. Yet another less than positive review for something that looked very promising.


  2. Wasn’t planning on watching it, looks like it was the right decision! 😀 Nice Review!!

    • Thanks Simon!

      • Are you kidding me!? Anchorman 2 was a huge let down! Maybe people just can’t appreciate a film that isn’t so predictable. It was like a breath of fresh air to watch a movie that went outside of the cookie cutter films being made right and left.

      • Each’s own. I preferred Anchorman 2, but that’s just me.

    • Just go watch the movie its better than the other crap movies that are being made right now.

      • Well, it’s not the worst film of the season, but it’s certainly weaker than The Hobbit or Anchorman 2. (Neither of which is perfect, to be fair.)

  3. You just put into words my thoughts after watching the movie. I agree 110%

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