Ben Stiller’s version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the second major film to come through Hollywood, but it scarcely resembles the 1947 take starring Danny Kaye. Loosely based on a short story by James Thurber, Stiller’s Mitty presents a dull photo specialist as a stand-in for the American everyman and allows the actor/director to give audiences a piece of escapism that aims to be inspiring but only occasionally hits its mark.
When the daydream-prone Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) filled out his eHarmony profile, he skipped a few important sections: he hasn’t really been anywhere or done anything noteworthy. He’s on the site trying to woo his new co-worker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), but he’s a shy, awkward guy who can’t pull the trigger to ask her out. They work at Life Magazine, and the film’s first conflict arises when the announcement comes down that the magazine is shuttering in favor of an online-only publication. Downsizing is imminent, and the corporate overlords send their most buffoonish bully (Adam Scott) to deliver the message. But when Walter realizes the negative is missing for the photo that’s supposed to grace the magazine’s final print issue, he’s inspired to not only speak to Cheryl for the first time, but – with her encouragement – break out of his introverted lifestyle and seize the chance to travel the world and track down the negative from the world-renowned photographer who may still have it.
Stiller has proven himself a capable director in the past (Tropic Thunder was his latest effort), but Steve Conrad’s script finds itself riding the line between heartwarming and incredulous, and Stiller rarely captures the uncertainty of whether or not we’re witnessing Mitty’s daydreams or real life. The film is startlingly clear-cut, and though that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I feel like there’s a more interesting version of it on the cutting room floor. The tone remains fairly consistent throughout, save for an extended Benjamin Button-inspired joke sequence that was completely out of place and felt like it came from an entirely different movie.
The other dream sequences, though, are often exciting, vibrant, and full of funny moments – it’s just too bad we never got to play the game of wondering whether or not what we were seeing was real. Visually, just about everything in the film is gorgeous, from its foreign landscapes to its use of effects incorporating text onto the screen. (You’ll know it when you see it.) From an acting standpoint, Stiller does a decent job of portraying Walter’s transformative arc, but it’s actually his wardrobe department that does most of the heavy lifting. (Early in the film he shuffles around in a drab suit, but as he becomes more adventurous he trades it for colorful hoodies and a hemp necklace.)
Opinions are inherently subjective, and even more than general thoughts about a movie, product placement effects different people in different ways. For me, this film’s product placement was incredibly distracting – so much so that it pulled me out of the film multiple times. I understand the desire to use a real company like eHarmony instead of a fake dating service A) to make the film feel as if it’s set in our world, and B) because using a fake imitation can often be even more distracting than the real product if it’s done poorly.
But eHarmony is far from the only product mentioned here: Papa John’s, Stretch Armstrong, Cinnabon, and Life Magazine are also prominently featured, and with so many brands shoved into my face, I found myself caring less about Walter’s journey and more about who thought it was a good idea for these companies to have such a huge presence in the film. That being said, the fact that Walter works at Life Magazine does add thematic resonance to the film, and the magazine’s mantra comes into play and inspires the character to make bold decisions. That choice is far less offensive than having the characters stop to talk about how amazing Cinnabon is for no good reason.
Despite my qualms, the film isn’t as terrible as I may have implied. The music is great (fueled by uplifting pop hits and Theodore Shapiro’s rousing score), Kristen Wiig is enjoyable as the love interest, and Adam Scott (who excels at playing a delightfully over the top douchebag, as he does in Step Brothers) is sufficiently villainous as the heartless corporate stooge tasked with closing down the magazine. Sean Penn, perfectly cast as the elusive photographer Walter’s chasing, is one of the best parts of the movie, though he’s only in it for a few minutes.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty excels at depicting the kind of catharsis average Americans yearn for: having the cash to travel the world (with a purpose, instead of some hokey reason solely about “finding yourself”), being able to defiantly stand up to a boss who’s being a jerk, escaping the monotony of a repetitive life, and getting the girl. It’s an old-fashioned midlife crisis movie and it also does a great job of celebrating the little guy – the overlooked worker; we’ve all felt like Walter at times, so the movie is relatable in that sense even if you don’t connect to the daydreaming elements. It can all feel a bit too coincidental at times, but Stiller’s hopeful optimism gives energy to the story and the central mystery keeps the pace from slowing too much. Cynics beware – this is not the movie for you.
Your mileage will vary depending on how willing you are to let the film work its magic, but if you can see past the machinations of Stiller the director, you’ll find Stiller the actor to be a pleasant protagonist in the center of a sweeping, though often cliched, love story. Until next time…
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