Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
PLOT: Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a dreamer who yearns to escape his hum-drum existence, and fantasizes about dating his pretty Life Magazine co-worker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). When the print edition of Life Magazine is scuttled, and the final issue’s cover photo is misplaced, Mitty takes it upon himself to find the missing negative, which is in the possession of globetrotting photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). Mitty’s quest takes him from Iceland through the Himalayas and beyond, in an adventure that- up to now- he could have only dreamed-of.
REVIEW: THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY has its origins as a short-story written by humorist James Thurber, which was turned into a big 1947 Technicolor musical starring Danny Kaye, which truthfully wasn’t that closely tied to the short story that inspired it. For decades, various stars (including Jim Carrey) and studios have been trying to mount a WALTER MITTY remake, with several full-fledged Mitty scripts floating around at different times. Finally, a modern version has arrived although it would be wrong to call Ben Stiller’s movie a remake.
Stiller’s THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is at least as different from the old forties version as that movie was from Thurber’s original story. The only similarities are that the main character’s name is Walter Mitty and that he daydreams. Stiller’s film is a real departure for him as a director, feeling more in line with his more thoughtful, earlier work like REALITY BITES, than the hilarious, twisted humor of later efforts like THE CABLE GUY, ZOOLANDER and TROPIC THUNDER.
The biggest difference between MITTY and those films is that it’s utterly lacking in cynicism. Even REALITY BITES- thoughtful as it was- was cynical in that patented Gen X way. This is altogether different, and is a surprisingly introspective work from such a big comedy star as Stiller. His Mitty isn’t that different from his usual nebbish characters, although unlike them Mitty’s not really anyone’s victim other than his own. He’s picked on by his bearded-jerk boss (Adam Scott) but here Scott is clearly a clown. Mitty’s fantasies are only really important for the film’s first act, with the most lavish one being a loud New York battle that plays like a satire of the destruction-laden superhero fights we’ve seen done to death in movies like THE AVENGERS and MAN OF STEEL. Once the proper story kicks into gear and Mitty’s on his adventure, it becomes a quiet, surprisingly affecting travelogue more in the vein of LOCAL HERO or a more upbeat INTO THE WILD than anything else.
It’s actually quite surprising what a quiet, atypical movie WALTER MITTY is for a big-budget studio comedy, but Stiller makes it work beautifully. The movie is helped enormously by gorgeous cinematography by DP Stuart Dryburgh that captures the impressive location shooting done in Iceland. The pop-soundtrack is also appealing, with music playing a big part in Mitty’s adventures, with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” memorably spurring him-on at one pivotal point. Often in a road-movie like this, Mitty would be meeting a variety of off-the-wall oddball characters, and while there are a few of those (including a drunk helicopter pilot) the focus mainly stays on Mitty’s inner journey, and his evolution from meek dreamer to confident man of action.This is easily Stiller’s best role since his own TROPIC THUNDER and while his shtick was wearing thin in THE WATCH or LITTLE FOCKERS, this is a re-energized Stiller working at his best. Kristen Wiig is also appealing in a surprisingly straight-laced role as Mitty’s dream girl, a kind single mom looking for love on websites like “e-harmony”. Funnyman Patton Oswalt has a fun cameo as the “e-harmony” tech support agent who becomes a surprising asset to Stiller on his adventures abroad, while Sean Penn cameos as a character that seems patterned on the public’s own perception of him through his work overseas.
It’ll be interesting to see how the public reacts to THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, as it’s probably the quietest, most introspective would-be blockbuster I’ve seen in a many a year. I hope that it’ll be appreciated, as there is something charming about watching a movie that so proudly wears its heart on its sleeve. Check it out.