I’ve had a number of people ask me what The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is about, and prior to seeing it, I’ve had some trouble telling them. The trailers are, of course, deliberately unclear, cultivating a sense of mystery about what turns out to be a pretty old-fashioned adventuring tale. Although a modern day office substitutes for a castle, this movie feels very much like the story of a young knight striking out in search of fame and fortune.
More specifically, the story is about he titular Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), a negatives archivist for Life Magazine, which has just been sold to new ownership and is preparing to publish its final issue. Walter is introverted and has a tendency to space out, wildly imagining heroic actions he’d never have the courage to carry out in real life. He’s got a crush on a girl in the office (Kristen Wiig), but his real trouble starts when it appears he’s misplaced a key negative which is to be the cover photo for that final issue. Although he’s never met the famous photographer who took said missing picture in person, Walter has cultivated a close working bond through the years with the enigmatic and ever-moving Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). So after some prompting Walter decides to try to track down Sean to find out what happened to the missing photograph.
Although this first act takes its time setting up the action, it’s pretty enjoyable in its own right, but it’s once the reticent Walter is out the door that the action really takes off. Not unlike an Arthurian legend, it seems Walter is destined for adventure. One event happenstantially leads to another, the fishermen he ends up with are happy to drop him off in Iceland since they’re headed there anyways (after giving him some new clothes and a rucksack for his things), a mysteriously available bicycle substitutes for a fortuitously acquired horse, that sort of thing. And mostly it works. Stiller is playing a familiar type, and Walter’s such a well-meaning, sympathetic type that we want badly to see him succeed in reality as much as he does in his daydreams. Structurally, the movie sticks closely to familiar archetypes, which again, isn’t exactly a bad thing, just a little familiar despite the new setting.
The daydreaming visions are clearly intended to be the main creative hook in this movie, the twist to the formula that sets it apart. While they’re fun enough, they’re also a pretty one-note trick that’s overplayed through the first third to half of the movie, then forgotten about. This plays directly into a couple of issues that are worth mentioning, the first of which is that Walter’s characterization is very uneven. Walter is constantly fluctuating around the periphery, at times so painfully shy he can’t answer a straightforward question and at times so undeniably capable he engages in solo wilderness excursions without evidence of any training for such a challenge. So where do the daydreams play into this?
The film clearly intends to juxtapose Walter the Imaginer with Walter the Do-er, and in doing so means to thematically suggest that our world is not so known, not so devoid of adventure as one might suppose. Which is commendable, and this bright-eyed vigor for living is where a lot of the fun of the movie is found. My issue came in that it seemed to me the daydreaming was inherent to Walter’s character, not a function of suppressed drive for adventure. Walter struck me as someone full of imagination, even at the end of the movie. I did grow tired of the predictability of the daydreams early on, but I wish they would have re-emerged late as part of Walter’s vision for his own life rather, a catalyst for his next adventure rather than a substitute for it.
Which leads me to my larger criticism. For a movie that actually does a lot to successfully communicate the notion that life is worth experiencing corporeally, rather than solely in the confines of your own head, the movie doesn’t do much that’s unexpected. Although I loved the basic structure positioning Walter as a knight errant, the film leaned too heavily on that mythic ideal. By the end of the movie, everything – and I mean everything – gets tied up in a nice, neat bow. I get that the movie is about hope and joy and experiencing the moment, but I desperately wanted a little bit of nuance, a little bit of real world grounding, a little bit of something that didn’t immediately turn out all sunshines and rainbows for Walter. I don’t mean to say that Walter never has issues to face, but that they’re always presented in a sensationalistic sort of way, as though this movie might have been titled The Legend of Walter Mitty. Returning to the idea that the film leans heavily on archetypical structure, Walter does return from his journeys a changed man, but we never see him adequately tested. He’s never really asked to live out his new ideas in a situation that’s ambiguous. The only times he’s challenged, the situation is quickly resolved in his favor. Again, I loved that the film was flush with the excitement of adventure, but even just a little bit of real-world grounding would have gone a very long way.
This being Ben Stiller’s much talked about debut as a dramatic director (he’s previously helmed titles such as Tropic Thunder, Zoolander, and The Cable Guy) I suppose I should take a minute to address that side of things specifically. Certainly, some of the fault for Walter’s world coming across a little too idealized has to be laid at Stiller’s feet, both as a director and an actor, but he’s perfectly capable in both capacities. Fitting the film’s subject matter, Stiller is constantly positioning his camera as though to capture photographs you might well find in Life Magazine. The result is a quality, if not especially remarkable, turn in the director’s chair, and some truly stunning shots that fit with the adventurous spirit of the picture, but also feel a little divorced from Walter as a particular character in a particular story.
The Verdict: 3 out of 5
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is feel good and lots of fun. Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, and Adam Scott are all well cast as dramatic spins on characters they well could have played in an overt comedy, and Sean Penn is a good choice as the revered and enigmatic photographer. The film doesn’t receive top marks from me because it ends up being too happy for its own good. It plays spectacularly as a modern version of a classic adventuring story, one in which it seems anything and anybody could be right around the corner, but this success is marred somewhat by an unwillingness to set this off with much of any meaningful ground in reality.