Movie review: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

DF-11070-Edit - Ben Stiller in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

dir. Ben Stiller

Release Date: Dec 25, 13

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is not a film familiar with the saying “on the nose.” It is unaware that this phrase exists, or that it’s rarely ever used as a positive descriptor of anything. This is a movie that sees its hero, Walter (Ben Stiller, who also directed), experience a profound moment of emotional awakening to the tune of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up,” complete with slow-motion running and wide-angle cinematography. Nary a single cynical bone exists within The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and it often feels like the kind of relentlessly sincere film that doesn’t get made anymore, like what James L. Brooks might have done were he a filmmaker predisposed to whimsy and far less disciplined.

And yet, with all of this in mind, the film works.

A photo archivist for Life magazine (see what I was saying about this being a no-subtlety zone?), Walter spends his days carefully arranging every facet of his existence with the same attention to detail that he brings to his job. His only release from a life dictated by borderline-OCD behavior comes in the form of his frequent daydreams, ones so powerful that they seamlessly bleed into his waking life until he’s snapped out of them. He’s too maladroit to talk to Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), his office crush, to stand up to the obnoxious asshat staging Life’s corporate takeover and final issue spread (Adam Scott), or go out and accomplish anything worth putting on an eHarmony profile. (Brief digression: If you’re a viewer who’s particularly bothered by crass product placement in your Hollywood movies, be advised that Mitty offers up some of the most blatant examples this side of a Michael Bay release.)

Walter isn’t particularly inspired to deviate from his daily routine until a negative of Life’s final cover photo by a famed photographer (Sean Penn) goes missing, inspiring Walter to leave the office and, ultimately, travel the world. A journey of self-discovery ensues, taking him all over the world, up mountains and speeding away from volcanoes. These vistas are where the film is at its best; Stiller has long been a seriously underrated director, the mind behind new canonical comedies like Zoolander and Tropic Thunder, and here he takes a swing at something closer to Garden State, another visually sumptuous (if, again, furiously obvious) film about the importance of living life on your own terms and shaking off your neuroses to feel the world more deeply. And Stiller approaches this with such sincerity, juxtaposing Walter’s big-budget reveries with the Stranger Than Fiction-esque pictorial stillness of his everyday life. Even in those static early scenes, Stiller approaches Walter and those around him with such a wealth of heart and warmth that one can’t help but join in after a while.

That warmth is probably best embodied by Wiig’s obscure object of desire, a slightly dweeby and endlessly sweet woman who’s not only not put off by Walter’s behavior, but also sees him for what the film wisely works to show that he is: A guy with a lot to say and offer who just hasn’t quite recovered from the setbacks that life dealt him. If Stiller feels just a bit miscast (for one, Walter needs to look about a decade younger), he still matches Wiig stumble for stumble, as a guy re-learning how to socialize after once being a much cooler person than he is at present. Perhaps that’s the appeal of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. For all its obvious musical cues, precocious (if effective) cinematography, product placement and treacly life lessons, it’s still a film that’ll send you out of a theater full of warm fuzzies. And sometimes, that’s okay.