(USA, 114 min.)
Dir. Ben Stiller, Writ. Steve Conrad
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn
Why do so many films and stories treat travel as a metaphor for personal growth? It’s an easy symbol, for one, to show a man evolve as he treks from Point A to Point B. Uncharted terrain, unknown waters, and foreign lands all present handy metaphors for taking a leap of faith. Ben Stiller’s adaptation of the short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, though, offers an unfortunate reminder that life can sometimes be better spent at home. This loud, schmaltzy, and inconsistent film rejoices in the thrill of escapism, but it’s hardly worth leaving the house to see on the big screen.
Stiller stars as Walter Mitty both on screen and off as he plays the lead both in front of the camera and behind it. Walter Mitty is an average man that escapes his ho-hum existence by zoning out and escaping into extravagant daydreams full of adventures that he’d never undertake in real life. Stiller is very likable in his performance as the amiable and relatable Mitty. Stiller, as a director, takes the imaginative sequences of Walter Mitty into all sorts of ambitious and extravagant corners of studio tent-pole escapism, yet they’re mostly obnoxious on-the-nose asides that grow tiresome almost immediately.
Walter loves to imagine himself in all sorts of crazy adventures. He chases trains, climbs mountains, and does impossible things without leaving the little bubble of his imagination. It’s no wonder that Walter Mitty wants to escape life. The film first introduces him sitting at home exploring the wonders of online dating as he uses his DellTM computer to browse E-HarmonyTM and stalk his co-worker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). He’s not the greatest catch for all these single women in search of a fun and exciting man. The fact is observed by the friendly man on the E-HarmonyTM customer service line (voiced by Patton Oswalt) in a painfully dead-on-arrival running gag in which Walter and the disembodied voice evaluate Walter’s evolution as a man in between plugs for the dating service’s signature algorithms and great track record for making matches.
Walter makes up for all his stay-at-home shortcomings, though, when he is trust into an exciting mission that could end with him saving his career and getting the girl. Walter, the negatives processor for photographs at Life magazine, faces an inadvertent blunder when he loses the negative for the image sent by renowned photojournalist Sean O’Connell, which his douchey employer (Adam Scott) insists serve as the photo for the cover of the final issue of Life before the magazine downsizes and moves online. Beckoned by the image of Sean O’Connell and prompted by Cheryl’s advice, Walter decides to turn his fantasies into real-life adventures.
As Walter follows the clues and tracks Sean’s trail across the globe, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty takes the audience on an adventure of picturesque globetrotting. This travelogue offers striking shots of corners of the globe—Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan—that rarely serve as backdrops for cinematic journeys. Stiller and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh use the locations to their fullest potential and let Walter’s trip achieve something grander than the fantasies he could ever dream up.
Walter’s trip, however, stumbles into cliché upon cliché as the privileged American betters himself through travel and in turn makes a mockery out of cultural difference. Language barriers are played for one-note laughs, while countless sight gags, such as one of a gun-toting’ Taliban soldier eating Mrs. Mitty’s clementine cake off the end of a rifle, stamp Walter Mitty’s passport with awkward cringe upon awkward cringe.
The whole feat of the treasure hunt in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, though, seems fairly pointless. The film contradicts its own logic by the end when Walter finds the elusive Negative 25 and it turns out to be a poignant photo essay in which O’Connell reveals that the greatest adventures in life are right in front of you. All of Walter Mitty’s jaunts around the world, all of his extreme expeditions, are therefore gratuitously grandiose spectacles that seem to miss the point of the film’s own message. He returns home from his travels supposedly a better man for seeing the world—the film’s weird flight with beard imagery also marks Walter a bigger man when he comes back with a face as hairy as his boss’s—when the morale of his quest says that it is a person’s ability to find the thrill of adventure in everyday doings that is the hallmark of living life to the fullest.
There’s a great film to be had in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, as Stiller’s best scenes are those that pull Walter back to earth and hint at the message embodied in Sean’s missing picture. Take, for example, the long-awaited scene in which Walter finally meets the famed photographer. Walter finds Sean O’Connell in the mountains of Afghanistan. Sean, played by Sean Penn in a hilarious bit of self-referentiality to his star persona as a world traveller, lets Walter observe with him a snow leopard that he has tasked himself with shooting. Rather than click away, though, Sean teaches Walter to simply savour the moment and enjoy the sights of life that are before his very eyes. There’s no need to frame it or manipulate it, Sean seems to be saying. These moments of appreciation and introspection seem to afford the most personal growth.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty ultimately—and ironically—feels very Mittyesque. The term comes from the legacy of Walter Mitty’s own source and describes a man like Walter Mitty who pays little attention to the real world and instead indulges in self-serving daydreams. Stiller has so many tools at his disposal—strong chemistry with Kristen Wiig, a great supporting cast of Shirley MacLaine and Kathryn Hahn, a heartwarming story, etc.—that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty fails to heed Sean’s good advice. Overblown set pieces and delusions of grandeur, which add little to the film other than diversion, overwhelm the potentially heartwarming drama. Stiller spends far more effort in using the fantastical escapism to show Walter’s growth as a person that one is ultimately left feeling cold when Walter’s adventure comes full circle and tries to hit home.
Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is now playing in wide release.