November 17, 2013

AFI FEST Film Review: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”


THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY:  Buy A Ticket – Ben Stiller’s Imaginative, Flawed Reboot Of The Classic Tale

The movies Ben Stiller directs for himself (Reality Bites, Zoolander, Tropic Thunder) are nearly always more interesting than the product he churns out as an actor (the Night At the Museum franchise, the Meet the Parents franchise, the Madagascar franchise, etc).  It’s true again for THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, an imperfect but impressive mix of comic spectacle and heart that screened at the AFI Film Festival before its scheduled opening on Christmas Day.

Aside from its basic concept, this Mitty, written by Steve Conrad (his previous scripts include The Weather Man and The Pursuit of Happyness) bears little relation to the James Thurber short story or the 1947 Danny Kaye musical comedy version.  Stiller’s Walter is in charge of photo inventory (wittily dubbed “Negative Assets”) at a still-existing Life Magazine, which here is about to be sold and converted to online publication.  (The name of the magazine is of course no accident.)  Walter is a withdrawn nebbish, too shy to speak to the co-worker of his dreams, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig)–or even to ping her online–but he periodically zones out into elaborate fantasies in which he’s a fearless hero.

At work, Walter’s special charge is to supervise the pictures sent in by globe-trotting photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), but when the new management, personified by Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott, playing the evil, bearded twin of his kind-hearted efficiency expert from Parks & Recreation), demands O’Connell’s new photo for the cover of the final newsstand issue, Walter is horrified to find it missing from the shipment.  Desperate, and unable to track O’Connell by conventional technology, Walter has to conquer his fears and pursue O’Connell to the exotic locales where he might be found, and before long, he’s jumping into shark-infested waters off the coast of Greenland, venturing near a live volcano in Iceland, and roaming the mountains of Afghanistan–along the way, of course, becoming a much more confident version of himself.

There’s always been a lot of charm to the idea of the schnook who has to live out the adventures he’s imagined (much of Woody Allen’s early career was built out of variations on the theme), and Stiller and Conrad are at pains to give the story some emotional grounding, avoiding the temptation to load on one super-sized sequence after another.  As an actor, Stiller hasn’t been this present in one of his roles for years, and as a director, he’s given Walter Mitty a consistently distinctive look.  There’s epic scale in Stuart Dryburgh’s photography and in Jeff Mann’s production design (the Life Magazine offices are gorgeous, dominated by giant blow-ups of former covers, some of which provide segues for Walter’s fantasies), and Theodore Shapiro’s score provides an emotional through-line to the tall tale, as do the exremely well-chosen licensed songs.

Despite all that, this Walter Mitty doesn’t quite come together.  Blending Walter’s fantasies, his actual adventures, and his personal development gives Stiller an extremely difficult task that proves too taxing.  He and Conrad stuff most of the big-scale fantasies into the movie’s first half-hour, and although they’re well-executed, they’re too self-consciously satirical for the tone of the rest of the film, and too familiar as well; they feel like gags rather than things Walter would actually dream, and they don’t mix smoothly with the real adventure sequences later on, most of which are staged for a different style of laughs.  Other problems go deeper.  Walter and Cheryl just aren’t very interesting as characters; their arcs as the sad sack who grows a pair and the sweet romantic interest feel old-fashioned, and not in a thoughtful way.  The one piece of backstory that Walter is given to make him less predictable is so oddly off-tone that although it’s useful for plot purposes, it feels glaringly wrong whenever it comes up.

There’s also an oddly becalmed quality about the narrative–although Walter theoretically has a deadline and a goal, the movie seems to drift from sequence to sequence, with little tension or propelled pace.  It’s as though Stiller is uncomfortable navigating a tone less edgy than his usual one, and it gives the viewer too much opportunity to be one step ahead of Walter as he tries to figure out the plot’s various mysteries about Sean O’Connell’s missing photo.  (One might also wonder at the weirdly prominent product placements for a couple of fast food chains.)

Stiller’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an enjoyable movie to watch, beautifully assembled in all its technical aspects, and broadly likable, with a neat ending (especially for those who haven’t guessed it).  Ultimately, though, it’s not as satisfying as what Stiller’s dreams must have been.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."