The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgI have no desire to write this review. I’ll give you a little insight into my creative process. I really enjoy evaluating movies I am passionate about, 4 stars or more. And I’ll admit I take some delight in assailing a production that is an affront to my sensibilities. That’s 1 ½ stars or less. The ones that earn 2-3 stars from me are the most difficult critiques to compose because those flicks merely exist. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of brilliance in them, but by and large they fail to truly engage me as a moviegoer. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of those films.

This is the 2nd time that James Thurber‘s short story has been made into a feature. Apparently bringing the comedy back to the screen again was a tough nut to crack. The origins of this long developing remake go back at least as far as 1994 when its producers had Jim Carrey in mind for the title role. The director included everyone from Ron Howard to Chuck Russell (The Mask) to Steven Spielberg. The lead actor changed as well. Owen Wilson, Mike Myers, Sacha Baron Cohen had each been attached. It wasn’t until April of 2011 that Ben Stiller was tapped for the lead. A year later he stepped up to direct as well. The current screenplay by writer Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness) is less an adaptation of the original short story and more of a modern rewrite. Walter still has a predilection to daydream. However it’s updated to a 21st-century milieu by setting it amongst the modernity of corporate downsizing and eHarmony online dating. The latter of which hopefully paid for all the free advertising they get here. 

Ben Stiller is a proven talent that knows how to connect with his audience. Tropic Thunder was a prime example of an innovative comedy that brought something new to the table. Conversely, it’s hard to believe this production is from the same director. The nicest thing I can say is that it’s inoffensive. Stridently bland and mild, the picture’s grand design is to serve up some special effects-laden setpieces whereby a milquetoast learns to find himself. Our protagonist manages the photographic negatives at LIFE magazine where he has a crush on his coworker Cheryl played by Kristen Wiig. She is quite likable in the part. Walter has a new boss Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) at work.  Writer Steve Conrad has envisioned his part as a smug jerk. I think Ted is supposed to be amusing, but he’s just annoying. He’s also got a ridiculous looking beard. Actually his whole adversarial team have beards. Anyway, it looks fake, like it was darkened by a magic marker. I was distracted by how ugly it was. The tale is set against the backdrop of the magazine’s final print issue as it converts to online status. (Incidentally this occurred in real life for the 3rd and last time on April 20, 2007 when LIFE was a newspaper insert).

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the whimsically labored chronicle concerning a daydreamer who finds himself. The screenplay is annoyingly twee. His amusing daydreams permeate the beginning. Some of these fantasies are kind of inventive while others are kind of random. In one he has the “Benjamin Button” condition where he ages in reverse, leading him to imagine growing old with co-worker Cheryl whom he fancies. He‘s sitting on her knee, as an old geriatric baby. However these delusions dissipate after a while and then we’re left with the reality of Walter Mitty. His goal?  To find a photographer! Zzzzzzzzzz. He flies to Greenland and knowingly boards a helicopter being maneuvered by a drunk pilot. Once in the air, he accidentally jumps out of that chopper and fights a shark in the water below, then takes a boat up to Iceland where heads to a volcano. The non existent drama is populated by overly precious scenarios without much substance. The story ends up having very little narrative heft. Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty is an inconsequential fellow, much like the picture. His character has the soul of a dreamer, but the film itself has no soul.

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31 Responses to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

  1. Gregory Skala Says:

    I really appreciate your opening remarks about how difficult it is to write about the “middling” movies. I think what you describe makes a good analogy to many situations in life. — Uncle From Canada

    • All films are judged according to the same standards – my own. I’ve seen so many great pictures this past year. For example director Mitty resembles the movie Her superficially in style but without the deep commentary of Spike Jonze’s masterpiece. Average filmmaking doesn’t cut it and this was so stridently average to the point I didn’t even want to write about it.

  2. Whimsically labored? Perhaps – but I saw it at a sneak preview back in early December and enjoyed it – at least enough to recommend it as it does what it sets out to do and does it quite well (it’s gorgeous to look at) and entertainingly so (it’s mostly funny and a little poignant by Hollywood standards) – Perhaps you weren’t in the mood for the film either?

  3. A shame you weren’t able to enjoy this more. I loved it but it certainly lacked some oomph that would have made it far more dramatic. I definitely feel that frustration. But you pointed out I think what I loved about the movie the most, the fact that it’s “inoffensive.” I found Stiller (as performer) to be extremely likable this time around whereas I’ve always found him to be pretty obnoxious.

    Certainly could have been better but I did manage to settle for less this time. I am, however, having a harder time doing so with Long Walk to Freedom. . .

    • I do like Ben Stiller. There’s Something About Mary, Meet the Parents, Zoolander, The Royal Tenenbaums, Tropic Thunder – He’s done some really great films.

      I never felt he was annoying. Well that is, not until this film. lol

  4. I feared this would happen. The movie looks like an imaginative bundle of special effects-laden scenes. After reading your review, it seems like there’s also some boring drama as well.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  5. Good review Mark. While it wasn’t a perfect flick, it’s still an impressive piece of ambition that Stiller doesn’t really drop the ball on. He just doesn’t do much of anything spectacular, which is fine considering this could have been a very painful thing to watch had it gone the other way.

  6. I was already hesitant to see Walter Mitty. Your review just reaffirmed my suspicions. “Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty is an inconsequential fellow, much like the picture. His character has the soul of a dreamer, but the film itself has no soul.” – That’s just sad to hear.

    • Between The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and The Watch, he is in a bit of a box office slump. I guess Tower Heist was a moderate success. And of course he could always make another Madagascar film. 😯

      • Ugh yes, I forgot about The Watch. That was terrible. I haven’t had the misfortune of seeing the Madagascar movies yet. For some reason I’ve got a copy of the third one kicking around here so I’ll probably see that at some point.

  7. There’s no disputing matters of taste! I not only enjoyed the new Mitty, but was actually inspired by it as well (and certainly liked it more than the very dated original film).

  8. Wow. We feel very differently about this movie! haha. That doesn’t happen very often.

  9. Great review, Mark. I more or less agree, though I think Stiller’s direction more admirable in this one than you do. The screenplay is rotten, though, just like you said.

  10. There is a lot to be admired in Ben Stiller’s adaptation It is very ambitious taking on several different themes and ideas that unfortunately get lost despite its good intentions.
    It’s a very messy film, love the soundtrack though.

    Nice review!

  11. This could have been a great movie, but it just lost something, through the middle half. I really liked the fantasy scenes in the beginning, but the reality scenes fell flat. Just ok. 3 stars

  12. martin250 Says:

    nice review. perfectly agree.
    fell asleep for about 5 to 10 minutes in the theater. think it was during the part when Walter got off the boat, maybe in Greenland, and then started using a bike.

  13. Extremely concise review here Mark and I fully agree with your critique. Although Stiller offered some charm and even a whisper of depth to his performance, the film itself unfortunately left me cold and subsequently bored. A random patchwork of comedy sketches or ‘delusions’ pulled the rug from underneath any drama that had been stirring early on. It didnt work for me in the slightest Zzzzzzzzzz

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