Ben Stiller's distinctly unadventurous 'Walter Mitty' is a poorly thought-out attempt at an inspirational journey
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty 20th Century Fox
Director: Ben Stiller
Screenplay: Steve Conrad, based on the short story by James Thurber
Starring: Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Adrian Martinez and Sean Penn
Rated PG / 1 hour, 54 minutes
December 25, 2013
(out of four)
Walter Mitty has no secret life at all. He doesn't even have an imaginary one. Every now and then, he zones out and briefly imagines himself doing something extraordinary before being snapped back into reality. But these fantasies don't seem to affect his life in any meaningful way; they never feel like dominant moments in his psyche. They certainly aren't anything out of the ordinary. Everyone's a dreamer.
Which would be fine if Walter were some kind of everyman. If - as director/star Ben Stiller would no doubt want us to believe - there was a bit of Walter Mitty in all of us. But no - Stiller's adaptation of James Thurber's 1939 short story makes it explicitly clear that this Walter is meant to be a dreamer of the highest and most tragic order. Completely aloof, perpetually alone, a conspicuous wallflower who keeps to himself and never takes a chance on life, despite a vivid imagination in which he is a glorious adventurer, avenger, hero, lover. All that glorious potential squandered.
About those daydreams, though. The thing is, they exist exclusively in the world of movies. They are not the fantasies of a person; they are the fantasies of a special-effects team with a big budget. They are one-off comedy bits loosely inspired by the day-to-day existence of a Life magazine negative assets manager. Not only that, but they undermine their intended effect because they're so thoroughly divorced from Walter's actual adventures, which are invariably less interesting and less entertaining.
Taken separately from the rest of the film, the daydreams are probably the best thing about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty - notably Walter's imagined Benjamin Button-like romance with his co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), or his elaborate chase of his evil new boss (Adam Scott) through the streets of New York. But Stiller (and screenwriter Steve Conrad) abandon that absurd spirit for more straightforward, platitudinal, grab-life-by-the-balls drivel that it never earns and which never pays off. While it may be true that Walter's daydreams reveal something about his character - beat up the boss, save the dog from a burning building, rescue the girl - his actual adventures most certainly do not. And this is the crux of the problem - the movie's killer fundamental flaw. Its title character simply cannot justify the very point of the movie. We see Walter as a normal guy who keeps to himself, and then one day he decides to throw caution to the wind and go on a grand adventure. And that's it. That's his entire arc. He's a coward one moment, a maverick the next. Point A to point B just like that.
Naturally, there must be a moment of decisiveness in which Walter takes the leap of faith, but it plays like a mechanical screenwriting decision, not an emotional or visceral one for the character. Walter isn't swept up by a sense of romance or danger or passion; he just loses something at work and has to go find it, and then suddenly he's in Greenland or Iceland or the middle of the ocean or the Himalayas or, most exciting of all, a Papa John's. (Yep.) (We'll get back to that.) And he takes to his newfound adventurous spirit almost immediately. There's no journey and no transformation. Before you know it, before it's felt like he's done much at all, he has people telling him how much he's changed, and how he seems like an entirely different person.
Well, he hasn't, he doesn't and he isn't. He's just the same guy with cooler clothes and a better beard, but with a list of new experiences superficially attached to make him seem more interesting.
A lot of Walter's supposedly transformative journey is glossed over in montage form, so there hardly even seems to be an effort to bring it to life. We look at the movie's globe-trotting locations the way we would a collection of postcards. Beautiful, yes, but ultimately meaningless. Stiller finds moments to focus on - and individual moments work - but loses the bigger picture in the process. And when he ultimately needs to bring it all home in a pivotal climactic scene - a reinvigorated, reinvented Walter returning to work with an act of defiance and authority - it proves hopelessly unconvincing. (And unsatisfyingly wraps up one of the only running subplots that had actually kinda worked.)
Yet despite the disconnect between the film's fantastical ambitions and its more trite, Hallmark-card conclusions, and despite its inability to give the story the epic scale it's striving for, Stiller and 20th Century Fox have no such trouble giving their corporate sponsors all their money's worth.
I don't usually write about product placement, in part because it's such a common part of the business and in part because I'm not automatically against it on principle (and plenty of movies have used it wisely and organically). But when it's as egregious as it is in Walter Mitty, it becomes an embarrassment. An entire running plot point is about Walter's online dating profile on eHarmony.com. Papa John's is mentioned half a dozen times, including one shot (while Walter is outside making a call) with a Papa John's restaurant in the background dominating the entire frame. Later, there's a scene where Walter meets face-to-face with his friendly eHarmony.com representative Todd, who proceeds to tell us - apropos of nothing - how magical and delicious Cinnabon products are.
The product shilling is so persistent and so absurd, it reminded me of this. It is no less blatant than any of those examples from Days of Our Lives, I promise you. I may not have gotten much out of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but at least I did learn that I should get my pizza from Papa John's, my dessert from Cinnabon, my backpack from JanSport, my flights from American Airlines and Air Greenland, and my future wife from eHarmony.com. You've inspired us all, Walter.