The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) / Comedy-Adventure

MPAA Rated: PG for some crude comments, language and action violence
Running Time: 114 min.

Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Shirley MacLaine, Sean Penn, Kathryn Hahn, Patton Oswalt, Jon Daly
Small role: Conan O'Brien, Andy Richter
Director: Ben Stiller
Screenplay: Steve Conrad (based on the short story by James Thurber)

Review published December 25, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty represents a more ambitious directorial effort for lead actor Ben Stiller (who also helmed such comedic features as Zoolander and The Cable Guy), and his comfort behind the camera is a sign of a certain maturity, far beyond the limitations of the contrived screenplay, but its jarring tonal changes do make for an uneven experience.  James Thurber's very short story, which had been adapted to film before in a 1947 effort starring Danny Kaye, provides the kernel of the idea. This 2013 release is a beast of a different nature, only adapting the name of the main character and his propensity to get lost in daydreams wherein he commits acts of heroism only known to him.  The rest is a spotty mix of mildly zany comedy asides, Discovery Channel travelogue, and moody Spike Jonze-esque musings -- three potentially scrumptious side dishes that taste a bit off when mixed together as a main entree.  

Walter Mitty (Stiller) is a quiet bachelor who has led a very uneventful life, so much so that his mind seems to work overtime at imagining himself doing great things to the point where he loses connection with the world around him (his family calls it "zoning out").  He works as a negative asset manager (he develops the film negatives that the photographers send for publication) at Life Magazine, where he has developed a thing for one of his equally quirky coworkers, Cheryl (Wiig, Girl Most Likely).  When he finds out she has joined eHarmony (the first of several product placement moments shoehorned in), he joins as well, hoping he can make the connection in the cyber world that he can't seem to make in person.

Things get tense at work with the arrival of a bearded corporate suit named Ted Hendricks (Scott, The Guilt Trip), whose task it is to transition the long-running publication from print to website-only, which means certain layoffs for many.  With one final issue set to print, Ted is very keen on finishing up the respected magazine's run with one final cover shot from its best photographer, Sean O'Connell (Penn, Fair Game), except that the one O'Connell says they should go with has mysteriously disappeared from the envelope.  As Walter knows what's riding on it, he's determined to save the day by traveling out to find the elusive, globe-hopping O'Connell's whereabouts, requiring him to go on the first true adventure of his life.

If The Secret Life of Walter Mitty succeeds at all, it's due to Stiller's ability to create a contemplative mood that gives at least the semblance of philosophical depth to his piece.  With the exception of Mitty's action-oriented fantasies, the tempo is methodical and lingering, which serves up the right feel for the potentially erudite musing that Stiller appears to be going for in the way he has put the film together.  Along with breathtaking cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh (No Reservations, The Painted Veil), who captures in moving film views that might be worthy of Life Magazine itself if broken down into cel form, the lush music from Theodore Shapiro (We're the Millers, Game Change), along with a catchy alt/pop/folk soundtrack, captures moments that make the film enjoyable if it were just a nature video without story or dialogue.  In fact, the non-dialogue scenes say far more in regard to how beautiful the world is and how much it is worth exploring than anything said in the dialogue or story itself. As long as the screenplay can meet the visuals halfway, and the non-Mitty characters are believable enough, this should be a slam dunk in the soul-stirring entertainment department.

Alas, for all of Stiller's wonderful visual delivery, it is built on a screenplay by Steven Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness, The Weather Man) that feels more like an outline than a fully realized script.  There are almost no character touches outside of the quirkiness brought to them by the actors themselves, most of them feeling like placeholder archetypes plugged in to the "big picture" style of the storyline in order to try to deliver poignant overarching moments to move us.  The lack of credible characterizations means that the would-be love story between Walter and Cheryl has no emotional connection, and their dialogue between each other leaves little for them to do except stare awkwardly at each other, while we in the audience stare awkwardly at them.  Do they understand each other so deeply that words can't express it, or is it merely a case of two people who just don't know what to say?

Although billed as a comedy, outside of a few quirky moments, the film doesn't really deliver huge laughs.  When Stiller does try for pure comedy, such as a truly bizarre skit in which he imagines himself as Benjamin Button, it comes off as unnatural to the flow of the rest of the rather downbeat film.  Introduction of the fad toy Stretch Armstrong, which Mitty carries around through several scenes, seems like a visual gag in need of a punch line.  When Mitty thinks back to his troubled childhood time and again (where he sported a punk rock and mohawk), and later has some disturbingly violent fantasies, particularly involving beating up the immaculately bearded Ted Hendricks, he comes off more like a psychopath than a romantic hero worth rooting for.  When the only person in Mitty's life who notices he has profoundly changed is a disembodied voice from an overzealous eHarmony rep he's never met (Oswalt, Observe and Report), it says a lot about his relationship, or lack thereof, with his mother (MacLaine, Bewitched) and sister (Hahn, The Dictator).  These misguided scenes, along with occasional prolonged lulls, will have many audience members daydreaming, Mitty-style, of what a better movie this might have been had it fleshed out its characters and reined in some of its major story contrivances.

If there's a subtle theme possibly gained from the abundantly overt film that might be considered a life lesson, it's perhaps one that isn't fully realized on the screen.  It's the symbolism of Life, as a magazine, going from the world of real film stock and paper-and-ink print magazine to the realm of digital photography and online publication.  In much the same manner, "life" as we would consider it for ourselves, seems to also be going from experiences we can see and touch for ourselves going to the virtual world online, where we are disconnected from real experiences, entertaining each other with a collection of pumped-up trivialities and social-occasion photographs meant to show the rest of the world we're doing something -- anything -- with our own lives of note.  Unfortunately, the poignancy of this message is far too late for true relevancy -- perhaps because the film had been in development hell for nearly two decades; Life Magazine stopped its regular print publication in 2007.

The big problem with the film in regard to being able to inspire us on how to live life is that "life" as it exists in The Secret of Walter Mitty feels like it belongs in the alternate reality Earth worthy of a science fiction film.  This is a movie made by people who don't understand eHarmony (especially their customer service), the magazine industry, skateboarding, punk rock, commercial photography, corporate downsizing, or, based on what we see on the screen, basic human interactions.  How are we supposed to feel motivated to experience the so-called real world through a fictitious and heavily contrived movie that doesn't resemble anything we might actually find when we walk out the door?

Nevertheless, it's difficult to look at the natural beauty of Earth's remotest destinations around the world and not wish we could transport there, Walter Mitty-style, so even if the main story isn't particularly compelling enough for us to instantly get our bums out of our theater seats to actually experience things for ourselves, the cinematography does the work for us (a bit like Life Magazine itself -- we're transfixed by the iconic pictures even if no one really bothers with the story that goes with them).  Stiller has turned in a postcard-beautiful film, though more in body than in spirit, but has also given us an unfunny comedy, an unconvincing romance, and a heaping helping of faux-inspirational sloganeering gobbledygook.  It keeps the attention moderately, but without much of the satisfaction of the intended spellbinding payoff.

Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo