REVIEW: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

mitty poster

I’m no card carrying Ben Stiller fan but I was really interested to see his vision of “Walter Mitty”. This is the second film based on the 1939 James Thurber short story and some doubted it would ever see the light of day. Various versions of the script were tossed around and actors such as Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, and Sacha Baron Cohen were all in line to play the lead role. But after years in development limbo, it was Stiller who was signed to not only star in but direct Steve Conrad’s final script.

Stiller and Conrad use Thurber’s vision of Walter Mitty as a reserved average Joe who experiences the life he wants within his vivid world of daydreams. But the movie ends up pushing that aside and goes off on its own, becoming a film about fulfillment and self-discovery realized through a pretty remarkable journey. I was fine with that as long as it served the picture well. There are moments of greatness in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and there are scenes that really drew me in. But there was also something missing – something that holds the film back and keeps it from being the great movie we are often teased with.

mitty1

In this modern telling, Walter Mitty (Stiller) works in the ‘photo negative assets’ department of Life magazine. One morning the employees get news that the publication will be turned into an online-only magazine making many of their jobs “nonessential”. Acclaimed photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) sends the magazine a negative that he believes to be perfect for Life magazine’s final cover. But Walter misplaces the negative. So with his job on the line and the pompous transition supervisor (Adam Scott) breathing down his neck, Walter sets out on a globe-trotting adventure to find O’Connell and hopefully the negative.

Walter’s journey takes him to some gorgeous locations including Greenland, Iceland, and The Himalayans. Stiller and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh draw us into these places sometimes with breathtaking perspective. They invigorate Walter’s journey and in some ways substantiate his personal transformation. But I also struggled with certain aspects of his adventure. There are so many obvious questions that the film prefers you not ask. And there are also an insane amount of conveniences that aid Walter’s quest. Regardless of the situation there is almost always a perfect out for him. Perhaps there is a deeper meaning to it but it isn’t hinted at from the story.

“Walter Mitty” also seems to have a small identity crisis. There are some pretty funny bits early in the film but then there is a long stretch where it takes things pretty seriously. The humor is back-burnered and it becomes a casually paced drama with a fair share of high points and lulls. It lacks a consistency that great films have but it also had an unexplainable attraction that I never could shake.

mitty2

As for Stiller’s work in front of the camera, I was really impressed. In a year featuring a number of towering performances, I wouldn’t call Stiller’s the best. But there is a legitimate sympathetic charm to what he brings to the Walter Mitty character. I was really drawn to him and personally sympathized with his perception of himself and his inadequacies. Stiller magically captures all of that. He does lose some of his attraction as his character changes towards the end but I still love this performance. I also thought Kristen Wiig was good but underwritten as the proverbial ‘girl of Walter’s dreams’ and Shirley MacClaine is good in a smaller role. Adam Scott is harder to gauge. His performance isn’t that bad but the writing makes this typical corporate bad guy a little too on the nose.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a tough movie to score. It certainly gets points for its visual style and gorgeous locales. It also gets points for Stiller’s fine performance and the sweet infectious charm of his character. Unfortunately it is an uneven film with a few too many contrivances and the occasional lulls. But yet there is something about the movie that I can’t dismiss. It has stuck with me and left the impression that I really need to see it again. That’s usually a sign that a movie works, at least on some levels.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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37 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

  1. “I’m pretty much okay with any movie that makes me want to be a better person, that reminds me who who I used to want to be and compare that would-be person to what I am. That’s the real accomplishment of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It is not a great film, but it is a film which aspires to greatness and makes you want to try for greatness too.”

    I can’t take credit for this comment,I stole it from my daughter. It seems like a good explanation for your point of view also.

    • Very good thoughts. I actually think I’m with you and what you’re saying is tied into what I liked about the film particularly the Walter Mitty character. I think that’s a lot of the charm and allure that I spoke of.

  2. Very fair review Keith, I really can’t disagree with anything here. And the way you state how this movie still managed to affect you is pretty much exactly how I feel about it too. It certainly gets away from its self and tries to become something just a little too epic at times but Stiller is always good on screen which manages to save it in several places. I liked this quite a lot.

    • Thanks Tom. I’m with you. There is a certain allure to this picture that’s a bit hard to pinpoint. But it is there for me. It’s certainly not a perfect movie but it has me wanting to see it again and that’s saying something.

    • I hear ya. Like I mentioned, I’m not a big Ben Stiller fan. But he is very good here. I think the biggest flaws are with the material. Still, it has that attraction that has me wanting to revisit it.

    • Thanks man. I wasn’t just dying to see this either but I was interested to see the more modern take on it. It surprised me a bit. Hopefully it will you too. Let me know what you think.

    • Many thanks. Glad you gave it a read. Kinda hard to shake those flaws. In the end they held the movie back for me. Still there was something that kept drawing me to it. Tough movie for me to review.

  3. Very good review. I must admit there were parts of this film that appeared to be strangely shoehorned in that didn’t fit with the overall tone of the film, but I still came out of it feeling satisfied. I’ll probably do my own review of this film when I get the chance. But again, great review.

    • Thanks a lot and I appreciate the comments. You’re right, there are some issues with tone. At times it seems the film is confused about what it wants to be. Yet there remained a charm that kept me on the film’s side even when it would hit a narrative snag.

  4. I’m looking very forward to seeing this. It looks like it could be a potentially magical piece of work and your review intrigues me even more. Thank you sir!

    • Thanks for reading and I appreciate the comments. It’s not the perfect film but it has an definite attraction. It’s a bit uneven but I was still drawn to the Walter Mitty character.

  5. Great review, Keith. And mostly agreed.

    The investigative conveniences and happenstance irks me some, but the film is far from a failure. And Stiller’s direction and performance are very good, indeed!

  6. I found this film to be too ambitious, especially for a rookie filmmaker like Stiller. There’s a really good film to be made here, about repression and choosing, perhaps subconsciously, to be apart from the reality of human life; instead, they go for this crappy sentimental comedy, with the script from Hell. It is not, however, without its redeeming moments.

    • You touch on some of my issues with the film’s tone. I think I had a better reaction to it overall than you did, but there are clearly issues with the script. But I really did appreciate Stiller’s efforts. It’s certainly light and the end falls into sentimentality, but I still liked it as a whole. I do agree it could have been better.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Much appreciated!

  7. Nice review Keith. Sometimes it tries a bit more than it can definitely handle, but Stiller keeps his eyes wide and his ambitions high, and it’s quite impressive to watch. May not be perfect, but coming from Stiller, I have to say that I see a bright future behind the camera for him.

    • Hey I’m with you. When I saw Ben Stiller’s name attached I was pretty apprehensive. But he does an admirable job. And I thought he was surprisingly good in front of the camera. Wasn’t expecting that at all.

  8. I didn’t know this was based on a short story. Yeah I’m not fond of Stiller either in general though the beautiful scenery from the trailer did piqued my interest. I probably just rent this one though, I skipped the screening as there were too many films I saw back to back that it became a blur. Glad this one was pretty decent overall.

    • Thanks Ruth. The biggest surprise for me was Stiller’s performance. He was really good and the role really fits him. But overall I think waiting for a rental is just fine. I’ll definitely see it again.

      • Wow that’s good to hear. Glad he’s not in his typical goofy mode. Some comedians actually could pull off dramatic roles, I know that I like Will Ferrell in Stranger than Fiction which shows more of his dramatic chops.

  9. Nice review Keith. I went into this one with pretty low expectations. Reviews here have been pretty middling. But I was pleasantly surprised. I really loved it, thought it was one of the more original releases from a big studio of recent times.

  10. I thought this would be a crappy film I’d never see but the reviews have been oh so very interesting. I think I’ll see this for what you praised – Stiller’s performance and character. I didn’t even know it was an adaption before hmmm. Great review, Keith!

    • Thanks a lot! I think as long as you don’t go in expecting something epic you’ll be okay. It really does have a certain charm and Stiller was impressive. Not as great as its ambition but still enjoyable. If you see it be sure to tell me what you think.

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