Director: Ben Stiller
Writer: Steve Conrad (screenplay), James Thurber (short story)
Stars: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn
Release date: December 26th, 2013
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Running time: 114 minutes
Best part: The charming performances.
Worst part: The awkward comedic hijinks.
For short periods of time, daydreams detach us from our conscious selves to provide joy, exhilaration, and knowledge. In these intimate moments, the boundaries separating reality and fantasy are blurred. Escaping from mundane situations, people zone out to temporarily experience something else entirely. This broad description illuminates similarities between this particular humanistic action and cinema’s overall purpose. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty director/star Ben Stiller invites us to follow in his larger-than-life footsteps. However, this fantasy-adventure flick becomes as tepid and unexacting as the situations we subconsciously escape from. The movie, though peppered with exciting sequences, may be drowned out by more influential holiday releases. Also, this superficial yet exhilarating comedy-adventure won’t attract newcomers to Stiller’s zippy filmography.
With its ingenious premise, Stiller had the perfect opportunity to make a profoundly engaging and heartening remake. However, as a perfect example of 2½-star entertainment, Walter Mitty is only a utilitarian and concise comedy-adventure. Walter Mitty, despite its commendable intentions and engaging performances, is crushed by Stiller’s immense hubris. In lesser hands, this movie would get a free pass. However, with Stiller’s immense success in front of and behind the camera, the movie never cements his noteworthy talents and courageous oeuvre. Unfortunately, this disappointing yet enlightening adventure hurts more than expected. With an intriguing premise and immaculate big-budget-film-making tools at his disposal, Stiller’s adaptation of James Thurber’s short story becomes a saccharine and uninspired 2-hour Hallmark moment. Being the second big-screen remake after the 1947 Danny-Kaye-starring version, this version proves quality deservedly overshadows quantity. The plot, diverting from Thurber’s influential material, borrows from several genres, movements, and generic action-adventure conventions. This version kicks into gear when office drone and lonely schlub Walter Mitty (Stiller) walks into New York’s LIFE Magazine headquarters. Sadly, with the magazine transitioning from print to online, the majority of employees face the chopping block. Facing constant complaints from transition manager Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), Mitty has little time to impress cute co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig).
Unable to efficiently operate his E-Harmony dating profile, Mitty faces loneliness, unemployment, and a debilitatingly miserable existence. However, his fortunes change thanks to one photonegative. With negative no. 25 missing from photojournalist Sean O. Connell(Sean Penn)’s final LIFE Magazine reel, Mitty takes it upon himself to track down the all-important image. At the behest of mother Edna (Shirley MacLaine) and sister Odessa (Kathryn Hahn), Mitty – normally escaping to (dreaming up) fantastical worlds and dangerous situations – embarks on a spiritually transformative journey across the world. As a family-friendly farce, the movie becomes an uninspired and inoffensive Frank Capra-esque trip down memory lane (in multiple ways). However, this version contains several outstanding moments and concepts. Stiller’s creative side occasionally rises above the conventional and manipulative material. With daydreaming a commonplace practice, the first few scenes are, despite the CGI set-pieces and outlandish scenarios, startlingly relatable. His fantasies – ranging from jumping through windows, to saving dogs from explosions, to being a seductive mountaineer crashing into LIFE Magazine headquarters – are suitably charming. However, this movie doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. These dream sequences, though enthralling, add little to the movie’s enlightening narrative. Despite the glorious imagery and sweet touches, the movie’s all-important intricacies are wholly separated from one another. Unfortunately, Walter Mitty is significantly less enthralling than Stiller thinks it is.
Underneath its alluring sheen, the story hits familiar beats and dull patches. Sadly, the movie sticks to every Stiller-comedy-movie trope. With underwhelming twists and turns, kooky characters, and unexplored subplots, the movie never reaches its full potential. Sporting major logic leaps and contrivances, the stakes are limited despite Mitty’s stupefying journey. Tonally shifting between specific plot-strands and influences, the movie is also overwhelmed by its self-consciousness and contrarian messages. Throughout this roller-coaster ride, Stiller’s perspective hurriedly switches between each overcooked and excessive idea. Its living-the-dream overtones are overtly and repeatedly touched upon. In addition, this clichéd theme clashes with Stiller’s commentary on the working class hero. Beyond this, it ignorantly dives into the modernity vs. tradition debate. Switching from underdog story to hypocritical Hollywood farce, Walter Mitty is as shaky and bizarre as the titular character’s imagination. Despite the significant flaws, Walter Mitty, dramatically and visually, alludes to several distinctive comedies and influential dramas. As a Boxing Day family-friendly smash, the movie is comparable to Life of Pi. In addition, the movie’s ambitiousness and scope are reminiscent of Forrest Gump and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (the latter awkwardly referenced here). However, the most relevant influence is Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. This whimsical yet forgettable drama marks Stiller’s most earnest directorial effort yet. With Zoolander and Tropic Thunder being quotable and energetic big-budget comedies, Stiller has proven himself a note-worthy and engaging director.
“I just live by the ABCs: Adventurous, Brave, Creative.” (Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty).
His style normally highlights each project’s most unique and outrageous aspects. However, Walter Mitty‘s visual flourishes and directorial ticks become steadily irritating. Influenced by Michel Gondry, Woody Allen, Danny Boyle, and Robert Zemeckis, Stiller develops a pale concoction of the aforementioned filmmakers’ styles. Unable to deliver the comedic timing, zany visuals, and kinetic pacing of his previous efforts, his style lacks edginess, heart, or creativity. Each trick, awkwardly plastered across the screen for convenience’ sake, decreases the movie’s overall emotional impact. Stiller – pasting words across settings, adding montages at opportune moments, and flooding sunlight into every frame – applies conventionality to his extraordinary narrative. However, Stuart Dryburgh’s immaculate cinematography delivers vertigo-inducing thrills. Iceland, Greenland, New York and, the Himalayas are gorgeous and exhilarating locations. Also, the skateboarding and mountaineering sequences elevate the second half. However, the distracting product placement damages Mitty’s comically charged adventure. Shout-outs to E-Harmony, Papa Johns, American Airlines, and LIFE Magazine contradict the story’s over-arching messages. Despite Stiller’s comedic chops, the hit-and-miss gags provide false notes. Only a handful of clever lines save this otherwise dour dramedy. Despite the cookie-cutter characters, the enlightening performances are refreshing. Stiller, though preoccupied, delivers a gleeful and multi-dimensional performance. Playing a familiar average Joe type, his earnestness fits this intriguing role. Wiig is an engaging presence as Mitty’s quick-witted love interest. Scott ably portrays yet another over-the-top antagonist. Thankfully, Penn and Patton Oswalt bring tenderness and heart to the movie’s final third.
With insurance-advertisement-level depth and Kodak-moment-level visual stimulus, Walter Mitty is an advantageous yet misguided vanity project. With self-affirming shots of Stiller’s face, CGI overload, conventional screenwriting, and engaging performances, Stiller’s latest directorial effort becomes a confusing, pandering, yet engaging fantasy-adventure aiming specifically at common audiences.