There is a lot to like about actor/director Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It has a warm and positive message about the importance of breaking out of one’s shell. It’s beautifully shot, packed with some incredible Icelandic vistas and stylistic angles, and there are many memorable moments that come out of having a cast of interesting actors and talented characters. The emotional warmth and optimistic tone of the film make it a great fit for the holiday season, as it will be enjoyed by audiences of all ages and will make theaters a good destination for families looking for some entertainment. Pleasant and fun as it may be, however, it’s also hard not to acknowledge the over simplicity and shallowness of the story.
Based on the 1939 short story of the same name by James Thurber and scripted by Steven Conrad, the loose adaptation stars Stiller as Walter Mitty, an introverted Negative Asset Manager at Life Magazine who is prone to drift off into fantastical dream worlds where he lives a life far more exciting than his own. When the news comes down that Life will be shutting down its print section and focusing entirely online, Walter is tasked with handling the image that will be used for the final cover – a photograph taken by famous, globe-trotting, adventurous photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). Unfortunately, the specified negative isn’t included in the reel that Sean sends to him, leading Walter to venture out into the big wide world to try and hunt him down so that he can get the photo.
Walter is a likable and relatable character and Stiller does a great job bringing him to life with a clear emotional arc that will engage audiences for most of the film’s 114 minute runtime, but that’s really where the half-life of the movie ends. Enjoyable as the plot is, when it begins to wind down you immediately get the sense that you know exactly where it’s going, and when the movie fulfills that prophecy it’s not hard to disengage from it almost immediately. It’s nice to watch Walter, a genuinely nice character, learn how to grow as a person and expand his own horizons, but the story isn’t doing anything radically different from anything we’ve seen before.
What the film lacks in its writing is made up for in its direction and cinematography, though, as Stiller uses the movie as a canvas to experiment with a whole new kind of visual aesthetic that we’ve never really seen from him before. Coming after both Zoolander and Tropic Thunder, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is not only a big tonal change for the filmmaker, but also a great opportunity to play around with different kinds of photography. Many of Walter’s fantasies have him assuming the role of an action hero, and it’s impressive to see the director deftly switch from dramedy to blockbuster mode. More than just the day dreams, the protagonist’s journey takes him to some breathtaking places and the work by Stiller and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh as Walter travels through snow, mountains, oceans and volcanos of Iceland is nothing short of stunning.
With the film being released in theaters at the same time as some other truly brilliant titles, it’s hard to recommend The Secret Life of Walter Mitty too strongly, but its successes certainly outweigh its faults. Stiller continues to evolve into a better and better filmmaker, and hopefully his next time out will come with a script more worthy of his talents.