THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY Review

A sense of anticipation and excitement fills me whenever Ben Stiller decides to direct a film and to know that his latest, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, was as much a passion project as it was an option for the producing studio to re-make a classic title that starred Danny Kaye from the late 40's only upped my anticipation for what would hopefully turn out to be an insightful and life affirming tale of a man equally forced and scared out of the direction he once believed his life was going to take. Many people take issue with Stiller for reasons I can understand, but that mostly pertains to his acting ability, comic schtick and lack of range rather than the creative choices he makes when he is in full control. The guy can make however many Focker and Night at the Museum movies he'd like and I will still attend them because there is simply something about him and his ability to play the everyman with the right touch of comedy that appeals to me, but seems to have worn thin with many audiences. The good news here is that Stiller keeps his persona in check and the outright moments that are played for laughs to a minimum simply allowing the story to breathe. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is truly something to take on and though I have not seen the original Kaye version nor have I read the short story from James Thurber that inspired both films, it seems best to take Stiller's version on its own terms as it has modernized the themes that were likely the spirit of the original source material. I was floored by the initial trailer for this film as I had the rare experience of seeing it for the first time on a theater screen rather than on my phone or computer and with no pre-conception of what to expect. The tone, the shot selection, the music and everything else about it were sprawling yet exquisitely calculated and seemed primed to hint at a complete film that not only allowed for a bit of fantastical elements amidst the doldrums of a nine to five routine, but looked to say something akin to what we find on the inside of greeting cards without all the cheese and ingenuity. Instead, with a sense of real merit and heart; something that would speak across all kinds of racial and generational boundaries to the simple fact that life is worth living, so go out and make something of it. Stiller's film is indeed beautifully captured and delicately precise, but it never reaches the emotional heights it seemed so intent on achieving and in that regard it never truly captures the audience, but gives us more an interesting perspective than an engulfing experience.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) and Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Walter Mitty, whose name elicits a nostalgic world, is a forty-something negative asset manager at Life magazine. He has a sister and a mother (Kathryn Hahn and Shirley MacLaine) whom he loves and cares for very much, in fact you could say they are the root of his life, the purpose for which he suffers in the doldrums and yet he has no one for himself. His days consist of staying cooped up in a dark room with shelves upon shelves of photographs and only his single employee Hernando (Adrian Martinez) to keep him company. We are introduced into Walter's life as Life Magazine is getting ready to make the big transition from a printed issue to a strictly online publication that will cause work force reduction and is naturally reason to bring in an egotistical and downright despicable type of guy to run things throughout the transitional period and thus we are given Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott). Hendricks almost immediately becomes a nuisance to Walter as he needs the negative from world famous photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) that has been designated for the cover of the final issue. The only problem is, Walter can't seem to find the negative in the latest roll Mr. O'Connell has sent over. While good at what he does, Walter is not an outgoing person. He catches a glimpse of the new girl when he can and has created an  eHarmony profile for no other reason than to get to know her better. He goes in and out of daydreams multiple times throughout the course of the day which only seem separate him further from those considered average yet all of this comes to a head when he is forced to track down the missing negative. What the film strikes a perfect balance between is the progression of Walter's character as he doesn't immediately become this world-traveler without any explanation as to why he hadn't done this before, but instead we watch as it becomes obligatory for Walter to approach Cheryl (Kristin Wiig) and for her to build the confidence in him that affirms his suspicions he must find Sean in order to obtain that negative and have the final word with Ted Hendricks. It is a, as I said, precisely structured film and it was nice to see a movie rely on the development of character as its main objective more than anything else.

While many films will have strong character development and dynamics these are not typically the core of the films existence, but most of the time these serve a purpose in moving the overarching plot forward. While Walter Mitty does indeed have the sketches of a plot you could almost call the "lost negative" aspect an excuse that will allow Walter to develop in the ways that will satisfy an audience by the time the credits roll. I say this because as I walked out of the film and was reflecting on what exactly Stiller wanted to do or say with the story it became clear that this wasn't about whether Walter found the picture or not, but if he was able to get out from under himself and accept a large amount of change that might put him more on the course for the life he planned out in his mind when he was young and had no sense of time. It speaks to the issue of regret, of not accepting change and instead rebelling against it in order to keep things just where they need to be in order to survive rather than pushing forward and taking the risk that might payoff in a way that won't have you simply surviving, but living or failing with the reassurance of knowing you gave it all you could have. It is, in essence, a tale that has been said many times before in many different ways, but Stiller does indeed find a way to convey these dreams of Walter's in fantastic moments of heroism and action to an almost repetitive point early on. It gets the point across though and in some instances they are small enough you might blink and miss them while at other times they wander into the ridiculous that almost throws off the established tone Stiller has already prepared but keeps in the final cut to reassure himself that he has enough laughs included, enough of what people expect from him. It is in these moments that I wish Stiller would have truly dropped the feeling that he need to try and please everyone with his personal project and instead allowed his naturally charming and affable sense of human nature to shine through without stipulation. Otherwise, he gives a subtle performance that never shows signs of fatigue from his multiple duties on the film and instead is able to anchor the purpose of this film with a role that will not seem fully appreciated on a surface level, but more down the road when we realize that what Stiller was doing here, though it seems simple enough, is the mark of a naturally talented guy who has become an easy target because of his lack to repress the Hollywood culture.

Walter Mitty stops daydreaming and begins living his life to its full extent.
All of that being said, the film was still never able to hit me on as personal a level as I expected to. I almost wanted to be so swept up in the proceedings that they would convince me I was the main character and that I needed to go on this journey with Walter, but we never feel we become him but are kept as spectators watching as this guy is able to re-discover himself and catch up on time lost that will never allow his life a different course, but in his case is right on the cusp of whether he can turn it around or not. I enjoyed the film, it's deliberately slow pace in moments that were intended for nothing more than to explore the psyche of our titular protagonist, but I wanted to go inside the mind and be in the thick of it with him rather than constantly feeling like I was still on the outside looking in. There is never that transcendent moment though where things become less about what is happening on screen and more about how our lives are mirrored by the events playing out on screen. I understand that is a tall order for a movie to accomplish, but because that seems to have been Stiller's intention, because he has seemed to take such great care in crafting this piece of art (and it is art despite how well its themes are conveyed because the photography is breathtaking) it also seems that he should have been able to build up to that moment where the audience was no longer an audience, but a partner in Walter's quests that have been given the same life-affirming satisfaction as he has. It is a lot to ask, and that the final product doesn't deliver on those expectations doesn't mean I didn't like the film because I need to accept it for what it is and in that regard we have a film that knows what it is saying and conveys those ideas of the beautiful, the chaotic, the transitions we all have to go through into what essentially is an extravagant character study is as focused as I could imagine possible while not feeling as strong as it may turn out with repeat viewings. Wiig, MacLaine, Hahn, Scott, and Penn all serve their purpose in fine strides, but this is Walter's film and the focus is kept there without any of these supporting players ever threatening to disrupt that though it was nice to see Wiig stretch her dramatic muscles slightly while retaining the same qualities that make her universally lovable. There is a scene late in the film though where Walter sits talking with Patton Oswalt's character who he's spoken with numerous times on the phone but is never clarified if he truly exists that not only plays out nicely between the two actors, but brings the journey of Walter full circle in a type of introspective way that proves the film, while not hitting those emotional highs, has something substantial to say and says it without many appreciating it as they should upon first glance, kind of like Walter himself.