[Upfront Disclaimer: I had to miss the last 20 minutes of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in order to catch the bus home from NYFF. That may invalidate my opinion entirely, not knowing full context, but I can still give my impression on the 80% of the film I did experience.]
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty begins with Ben Stiller’s eponymous Mitty hovering intently over his eHarmony account, trying desperately to reach out to a girl in his office. After he repeatedly fails, he jumps off a subway platform into a burning building to save said girl’s 3-legged dog and instantaneously procure a prosthesis for it. From the moment it enters the scene to Mitty’s unphased return to reality, it’s clear that this is a cartoonish fabrication of his overactive consciousness, rather than a subconscious daydream. We all have almost certainly sidetracked ourselves for a moment to fantasize about what we could have done in a certain situation or in a different life, but it’s doubtful any viewer has had the kind of ego-bolstering scenarios Mitty consumes his time with.
We’re then strolled stiffly and quickly into Mitty’s office life as it’s thrown into upheaval, a corporate takeover transitioning LIFE magazine – so obviously a TIME knock-off that the distinction between fictionalized & real life iterations frankly disappears – to strictly online publishing. A momentous transition, the dickish higher-ups, led by Adam Scott’s bearded downsizer Ted, task Walter with submitting a picture his photographer partner Sean O’Connell calls “the quintessence of life” as the cover of the final print issue. When he cannot find that frame, he ends up going into a real life adventure to find it, seizing the life of adventure he’s always dreamed about, but never truly seized.
That’s the movie at face value, which is really the only value it has. That’s something you could have guessed from the trailer’s wordless, purely sensory presentation that piqued our interest in Stiller’s vision. It gave hopes that this would be a wilder feat of ambition than Stiller’s prior films, all raucous comedic farces with a toothy edge to them. For that reason we should have probably known better than to expect Stiller to dial back the comedy inherent in his filmmaking to steer the film’s imagination in an emotionally bound direction, rather than a comically bound one. That’s utterly neglected in the film’s overt fantasy sequences, the visual effects cranked up to cartoonish degrees of lunacy without losing the photo-realistic aesthetic sheen of Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography.
Even when the film drives its title character into incredible situations in the real world, it does so in the stilted fashion of his daily office life. “We have a blue one and a red one,” a Greenland local tells Walter before cutting to the two cars we’ve seen already. It’s a dull comic cue that failed to elicit much of a chuckle in the trailer and emits even less humor in the context of the film. All the jokes are of this cute, quirksome nature, indicating that Steven Conrad’s script was reliant on performance and direction to play off these moments. It’s embarrassingly limp and utterly without zeal in its comedic impulses and its characterizations are possibly even worst. Kristen Wiig, a mindful and specific comedic actress, is put appallingly on display as Cheryl, the vacant love interest Mitty’s dreams and adventures circle around, turning her into nothing more than a cheerleader for his feats of courage.
Shirley Maclaine plays Mitty’s mother, though you may fail to notice her at all, her relationship with her son being entirely untapped and undeveloped. There’s literally nothing that is fully developed about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, its goals of depicting the everyman’s escape from reality falling flat the moment it throws Mitty onto a helicopter. It ceases to be an introspective journey of personal discovery and becomes a “grow some balls and do something” piece of gung-ho heroism that, frankly, lacks any spirit for the adventures at hand. By the end you may cease to care about the missing photograph Mitty seeks, expecting it to be just as earnest and inspirational (not inspiring) as the rest of the film’s imagery, constantly backed up by the vocals and bellowing refrains of “Dirty Paws” by Of Monsters and Men or Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up”. With so many obvious attempts at moving us, how can one not feel needlessly shoved?
Bottom Line: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an everyman’s adventure story, but without the drive or emotion to get us to care.