REVIEW: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty [2013]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG | Runtime: 114 minutes | Release Date: December 25th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Director(s): Ben Stiller
Writer(s): Steve Conrad / James Thurber (short story)

“I always save your knick-knacks”

What began as a 1939 short story by James Thurber debuting in The New Yorker, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty found its way to the big screen in 1947 led by Danny Kaye. The tale of a daydreamer losing himself in excitingly heroic fantasies while sleepwalking through a daytrip of chores in the city with his wife expanded into a magazine editor finding more interest in the pulp stories he reads than the drab life he leads. It’s a conceit mirrored today with Mitty (Ben Stiller) imagining himself inside the photographs he processes while working at Life magazine, enjoying adventures in his head that starkly contrast the shyly quiet wallflower secretly crushing on a co-worker he really is. Despite the parallel plotlines, however, this iteration took a long and winding road to fruition.

Producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr.’s desire for a contemporary remake went as far back as 1994 with an eye towards Jim Carrey starring and Ron Howard directing. From there it went to Chuck Russell and Peter Tolan for rewrites, Steven Spielberg to breathe new life as director, and eventually Richard LaGravenese—said to have solved the inherent problem of this classic literary short turning into nothing more than a series of fantasy gags that lacked the weight Goldwyn hoped to see shine through. Owen Wilson came aboard to star, Mike Myers followed, and Sacha Baron Cohen circled it before a brand new script drawn up by Steve Conrad was given to Stiller almost two decades after the process began. Was the right team found or should the whole endeavor have been abandoned long ago?

I think the answer lies pretty close to the former because Stiller both embodies this everyman adrift in a world of crippling responsibilities due to tragic happenings perfectly and finds a way to place his story inside earth’s beautiful expanses and the imaginative construct of a stifled mind yearning to escape. His Mitty isn’t some drone doing what’s he’s asked in a dystopic existence—he was once a young boy who sported a mohawk as he shredded skateboarding parks in his hometown. He dreamt of traveling, backpacking through Europe, and being someone able to dive head first into the excitement awaiting us all if given the chance. But in an It’s a Wonderful Life sort of way, his father died, he got a job, and he willingly embraced the “man of the house” role that quickly replaced aspiration.

It’s no surprise he works for a magazine emblazoned by the fictitious motto, “To see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to, to draw closer, to see and be amazed and to feel … that is the purpose of life” just as it’s about to shutter its printed form for online (something Life actually did in 2007). These words are integrated into Stuart Dryburgh‘s stunningly lensed photography often captured great distances away from the action to constantly remind us of the publication’s metaphor for the life we should all hope to achieve. They become the film’s mantra of courage and adventure, a brilliant addition giving this family friendly film a voice beyond its lead-by-example visual philosophy to truly embolden those watching while indie tunes blare a call to action.

Could some say it’s cheesy and trite? Sure. But despite the outlandishly fun situations Conrad and Stiller put this character through, there’s still a wealth of tonal authenticity whether he succeeds in finding the lost negative meant for Life‘s final cover or not. Mitty may fight transition leader Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) in an anime/videogame style romp that has them surfing on pavement through traffic with a Stretch Armstrong doll and he may imagine himself as a Latin ice climber worthy of Cheryl Melhoff’s (Kristen Wiig) affections, but he faces the consequences of his tentativeness and dislike of confrontation whenever he’s woken back up to reality. If Ted wants the negative he can’t find the next time they see each other, Walter runs away. If Cheryl gets back with her ex-husband, Walter accepts failure and moves on.

Because while the film’s ultimate goal is for Walter to conquer his fears and realize the potential his mother (Shirley MacLaine) always believed he possessed, it’s also about him doing so without the distractions that drive him to the edge. Bullying the bully or devoting himself to love will only prove bandages on top of a much deeper-seeded issue. He shouldn’t be flying to Greenland, jumping into shark-infested waters, or out-running an Icelandic volcano to win the girl. He should be doing those things to prove they’re possible. Mitty’s adventure begins with the need to hunt down rugged photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) in hopes he has the missing negative, but it ends with him finding the man he locked away the day his father passed. The secret is that his daydreams are much closer to truth than he thinks.

An infectious humor throughout allows us to follow Mitty’s journey as an honest hybrid of fantasy and reality never far-fetched enough for us to completely check out. Stiller is a great straight man full of insecurities opposite the more colorful characters of Kathryn Hahn, Terence Bernie Hines, Adrian Hernandez, and Patton Oswalt‘s voice of eHarmony customer support agent Todd. We see him wrestle with desire and low-self esteem while watching as escapist dreams turn to inspiring asides pushing him out of the abyss of mediocrity he’s been drowning in. A sweet chemistry with Wiig breeds authentically awkward interactions and a glimpse of the coolness hidden beneath his innocuous façade as the rage of complacency bubbles to the surface every time he’s met with Scott’s demeaning smirk. His Mitty is relatable to us all from the beginning.

No matter how good his performance or how funny his evolution into the five-o’clock shadow wearing, straightened back conqueror of the Himalayas, Stiller’s biggest success is proving he has the directing goods for large scale drama to complement his comedic achievement on Tropic Thunder. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an aesthetic feat perfectly suited for a story meant to captivate audiences young and old with its “anything is possible” message. The overhead shots, static frames capturing tiny movements against a serenely massive landscape, and even the computer effect-heavy dreams retain a consistent voice that actually drags before becoming over-powering. The bombastic moments receive a light touch; prevailing despite hipster sensibilities or broader comedy at its end to make us not only pull for Mitty but also strive to follow in his footsteps.

[1] Ben Stiller stars in and directs THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY. Photo by Wilson Webb.
[2] Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) imagines himself as a fearless mountain climber who captures the attention of his co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). Photo by Wilson Webb.
[3] Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) and legendary photographer Sean O´Connell (Sean Pean) enjoy the view. Photo from 20th Century Fox.

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