The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
The employees learn that LIFE magazine has been acquired which means that many of them will be let go during the transition—to be overseen by Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), an insensitive lout who sports a bad beard. It is critical that the magazine’s final cover be representative of its title and so Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), in charge of the photo units, is thrown in a panic when he discovers that negative twenty-five is missing.
Desperate to keep his job and quenching his subconscious’ need for adventure and excitement, Walter catches a plane to Greenland in hopes of meeting the elusive Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), the photojournalist whose work frequents the magazine’s cover, and asking if he even sent the negative in the first place.
Based on the short story by James Thurber, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a nice movie—and that is not a compliment. “Nice” is equated with watchable but harmless, offering occasional beautiful images but none offers an immediate, visceral response. I enjoyed some scenes as they are but my brain could not help but think that with such a viewer-friendly premise, the final product ought to have been much stronger.
Stiller plays a nondescript forty-two-year-old convincingly. The performer does a smart thing: He does not play the character to be pitied. Even though Walter is a bit of a bore, we remain drawn to him somewhat—which is difficult to pull off—because Stiller does not turn off his charm completely. It is minimized to a flicker but we sense it nonetheless. I wish Stiller would play more nuanced characters like this. He can be very good at it.
I wish I can say the same about the screenplay. It is correct to inject Walter’s daydreams with exoticism, silliness, and excitement. However, when Walter’s mind is pulled back to reality, the material is not that interesting. Sure, some of the lead character’s interactions with his crush at work, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig—who manages to hit the right notes just about every time), are cute and sweet but aside from the romantic aspect, it shows little to no brightness in the other aspects of Walter’s life.
Perhaps that is the point. But I did not find that realistic. In order to be a true contrast against the more fantastic elements, realism must be sharp. In truth, ordinary lives may be boring but they are not boring all the time. Here, we get the impression that the truth represents the opposite of the latter and that is a lie. Thus, the picture lacks a defined reference point. Supposed opposite elements do not clash as strongly and so we fail to get strong reactions when they collide.
The best scene in the picture is when Walter and the photojournalist he admires finally get a chance to meet. Penn gets one scene and he plays it to perfection. At its best, it reminded me of a most wonderful feeling I had while watching Penn’s “Into the Wild” for the first time. The conversation that transpires between Walter and Sean has a poetic rhythm to it. Notice how the scene takes its time. It seems unconcerned in showing us the next magical thing that a computer can create. At its worst, it made me look at the beautiful scenery—and that is not a jab.
I liked the message that “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” based on the screenplay by Steve Conrad, has to impart. That is, great adventures can happen to all of us… but only if we are willing and present. One can visit foreign countries and explore the most exotic places but if the mind is somewhere else then there is no point. But notice that even when Walter is traveling to all sorts of places, clearly on a mission, there remains a tinge of sadness to him. Maybe Chris McCandless, during the final moments of “Into the Wild,” is right: Happiness is only real when shared.