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Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Directed by: Ben Stiller

Premise: An adaptation of the story by James Thurber. Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is an employee at Life magazine whose mind often drifts to daydreams of adventure and romance. When a critical picture goes missing, Mitty takes off on a global adventure to track down the photographer.

What Works: The technical qualities of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty are very impressive. The film is beautifully shot with gorgeous landscapes and unusual camera angles. The transitions between fantasy and reality are often seamless and the filmmakers use color, movement, and geographical shapes in really interesting ways. But although this film has a lot of flashy set pieces, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is at its best when the filmmakers play it quiet. The courtship between the title character and his workplace crush (Kristin Wiig) plays best when the filmmakers emphasize the awkwardness of the two characters. Easily the best scene in the entire picture occurs when Mitty locates the photographer, played by Sean Penn. This scene requires no fancy camera work or special effects. It is simply Stiller and Penn’s characters sitting on a mountain and reflecting on the beauty of nature and if the film had more of this and built more deliberately to that moment the picture might have been more successful.

What Doesn’t: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has a great concept and impressive technical craft but the movie is sunk by poor execution. Ben Stiller is a proven director and a reliable actor but his approach to this material is off and he is miscast in the lead role. Stiller’s shortcomings as an actor in this film are less a matter of approach and more a matter of talent. The movie requires Stiller to carry the picture and he isn’t up to the task. The role of Walter Mitty requires more range and more subtlety than Stiller has ever demonstrated and he is ill-suited to the part. As a filmmaker and as a performer, Stiller occasionally slips into his familiar awkward shtick and it is as if the movie has become another Night at the Museum feature. The tone of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty goes awry whenever it delves into a fantasy sequence. The acts of heroism are random; the title The Secret Life of Walter Mitty implies that the character has a vibrant internal life but Mitty is not an interesting character, his fantasies don’t dramatize anything meaningful, and they are often silly in the wrong way. Many of the fantasy scenes play like the over-the-top set pieces of Hollywood’s action spectacles and like the worst of those films they come across as unreal and arbitrary. In this regard, the movie jumps the shark early on with a fantasy sequence that imitates The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the bit plays like a sketch from the latest Scary Movie sequel. When Mitty finally goes on real adventures, these scenes are staged and shot so as to be almost indistinguishable from the fantasies. This misses an opportunity to contrast Mitty’s internal life with his external experiences and like the fantasies the real life adventures are silly and lack credibility. The ill-advised take on the source material comes to a head in the ending. Given the scope of the film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty ought to end on a profound conclusion. But when the film gets to its end the filmmakers have accomplished shockingly little and the epiphany is both simple-minded and obvious.

Bottom Line: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a big disappointment. The filmmaking craft is impressive but it isn’t in service of a coherent or meaningful story and the picture is often frustratingly devoid of any of the insights that its premise suggests. 

Episode: #471 (December 29, 2013)