Review: ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ Wavers Between Fantasy and Reality

Ben Stiller in 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'
Ben Stiller in ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’

Pretty as a picture and wooden as a frame, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty showcases Ben Stiller’s talents as a comic sketch artist and his limitations as a dramatic storyteller.

For his fifth outing as a feature director, Stiller has fused elements from James Thurber’s short story and Norman Z. McLeod’s 1947 film, in order to create an all-ages fantasy that is presented from the perspective of a middle-aged family man. Screenwriter Steve Conrad’s previous credits include The Weather Man, The Pursuit of Happyness, and The Promotion, three films that blend comic and dramatic tones with a splash of vinegar. The sharp edges have been softened throughout this movie, however, which blunts its social and personal commentary in favor of male fantasies disguised as exceedingly shiny-looking faux-reality.

Stiller stars as the titular character, a meek and shy man who has worked in the photo department at Life Magazine for years. He pines for a new co-worker (Kristen Wiig) and fantasizes that he is a globetrotting adventurer, like his hero, photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), who is apparently the only person in the world who truly admires Walter’s work. Sean sends Walter his latest batch of photos, including one that he thinks will make for a perfect cover.

When the decision is made to shut down print operations, a transition team arrives, headed by the nasty and clueless Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott). Learning of the ‘special’ photo, Hendricks pushes Walter to prep it for publication, but Walter can’t find the negative, and so sets off on an odyssey to track down the notoriously old-school, restless Sean before the magazine goes to press for its final issue.

It’s all an excuse to get Walter out of his cramped existence and into the great wide world, where he can stop fantasizing and start living his life. Or is it? The message becomes well and truly mixed. After all, if Walter is, supposedly, changing his life by experiencing thrilling new adventures rather than imagining them, why are they all so fantastical and unbelievable? Or are we meant to believe that middle-aged Walter, who works full-time in a corporate environment, is actually a world-class skateboarder, distance runner, mountain climber, and so forth?

Even if one were to accept that notion — which I do not — the film is rife with other inconsistencies. For example, we are told that Walter has remained single beause he feels an obligation to care for his mother. He quit high school when his father died to provide for his mother and his ditsy sister (Kathryn Hahn). Fine; that’s an admirable thing to do. Except that his mother, as played by the vital life-force that is Shirley MacLaine, appears to be in every way (physical, emotional, and financial) more than capable of caring for herself, so why does Walter cling to the idea that he must be a martyr?

These stumbling blocks aside, there’s the matter of the insistent product placement / advertorial messages — naming the offenders would only give them free advertising — and the waste of fine comic talents like Kristen Wiig, who has little to do. Oh, and the mystery that isn’t, i.e. the location of the missing negative is painfully obvious early on. The film bursts into life during occasional, inspired sketch-length segments, but then the story creeps back into view and insists on sharing its dour inspiration.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty means well, but it’s an emotional tar pit. If you step too far into its sentimentality, you can only escape its clutches by fantasizing another your own secret life.

The film opens wide throughout Dallas and Fort Worth on Wednesday, December 25.

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