The Secret Life of Walter Mitty tells the story of Ben Stiller Walter Mitty, archival curator of all the photos at Life magazine, at the time that the magazine transitions from print to online and downsizes drastically. As they prepare for the final issue, Walter receives a set of photos from legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) and a note saying that one of these photos will be perfect as the final cover – only the photo he’s specified is not there. To make matters worse, Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) the man overseeing Life’s transition is a complete douchebag and has it in for Walter. And so, with very little left to lose, Walter, who’s also beset by vivid daydreams of a more interesting life, sets out to Greenland, Iceland and even Afghanistan to track down the photograph, and maybe, just maybe win over the affections of a worker in his office, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig)
The story above only passingly resembles the original 1939 short story of the same name. In the short story, Walter Mitty is a man on a shopping trip with his domineering wife. She goes to the hair salon and leaves him a list of errands to complete, which he does so begrudgingly; the mundane events of his day trigger the more exhilarating daydream passages. It was adapted into a film in 1947 that also bore only tenuous connections to its source material, and now, 66 years later, we have yet another adaptation brought to you courtesy of Ben Stiller.
Ben Stiller would like you to know he is a sensitive man. Ben Stiller would like you to know that he has hopes and dreams like you other hyoo-man mortal creatures and he’d like to show you this by Jim-Carreying his way out of an excruciating career by going the “dramatic” route of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Ben Stiller as Ben Stiller as directed by Ben Stiller.
This is a ridiculously trite film that runs the gamut of all life-in-a-rut-but-maybe-its-not-too-late-to-have-an-adventure movies, only the difference here is that it’s not a mid 30s-to-40s female protagonist, but instead Ben Stiller looking blankly ahead for an hour and a half.
Let’s take a look at the quandary Walter Mitty finds himself in. These stories rely on a set of circumstances that are overcome by taking the first steps on the adventure, whether they be financial difficulties, the death of a family member, the sudden breakup of a relationship or some other event that leads to the motivationeless-spiral the protagonist needs to move past to get the plot going. In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the problem he faces that’s holding him back is that he’s bored. Just bored. Bored with what he’s got going on for him. That’s all it is. Boredom.
He’s not stuck in a rut due to his circumstances, he’s not suffering from any phobia that holds him down or anything else that might have served as an obstacle to overcome, it’s that his life is unexciting (but only in the sense of not being thrilling at every minute; his life has potential) it’s just that he’s bored by what he’s let become a day-to-day routine.
His job, which many a budding photographer would’ve gladly killed for, is only under-stimulating because he chooses to be bored with it. His unrequited affections for Cheryl are only hampered by the fact that he hasn’t actually said a word to her – there’s nothing stopping him from doing this.
His family is convivial and outgoing, it’s just that he chooses to feel disconnected from them. There are the occasional hints dropped that he’s more affected by the death of his father some decades prior than he lets on, but even then, there’s more attention paid to what an interesting and rebellious guy he used to be and absolutely zero explanation of what’s brought about the spineless milquetoast he’s become today.
Eventually yes, he does get out and go places – mainly because Cheryl suggested he do it, not because of any self-improvement he actually wants to undergo. And there’s a vague attempt made to show that the daydreams stop happening once he starts doing more adventurous things and that maybe this is what he’s been waiting for all his life, but for the most part, the bulk of this part of the movie is “oh I just missed Sean Penn” before moving onto the next place. And no, giving a shot of him looking at a travel journal that his Dad gave him years ago and has remained blank ever since is not establishing that this is how is life should have played out.
On a story level, I have issues with the film. Ted Hendricks is set up as a complete and utter douchebag, and has no other dimension to his character. He wouldn’t care that Ben Stiller couldn’t find the missing slide – he’d just go with a different one. Thus – no point in using this as the driving force for the plot. And also, it would have been SO LOGICAL to make the impetus behind finding that slide come more from Walter – maybe he could’ve been a perfectionist who wanted to complete his work, or maybe it could’ve been as simple as him having an unshakable curiosity about what was on the slide. It would’ve given the character more agency in the plot rather than it being reactionary to threats from his new boss. Also, the “twist” regarding the location of the slide is incredibly asinine and predictable, not least the contents of it.
On a thematic level, I have bigger issues with the film. Early on in the film, we see the motto of Life Magazine:
To see the world,
Things dangerous to come to,
To see behind walls,
To find each other and to feel.
That is the purpose of life.
I know this, because the movie imprints these words on a shovel and then beats you about the face and into the ground with it. I get it. I get that the whole idea is that we have this guy in a rut who makes the great discovery that he’s not a boring man after all when he impulsively starts travelling the world. It begs for a cheap summary of “He travelled the world to find a photo, but ended up finding himself” and this is a movie so unremarkable in the end that it deserves a line of hogwash like that in the end.
But the movie is so pedestrian in Walter’s exploits that he manages to do none of the things listed in the Life motto (or at the least none of the things that the movie feels the need to explore in any depth) and by the time the film is resolved, Walter’s an entirely new person primarily because he rode a skateboard down a country road in Iceland.
There’s no journey to speak of, because the film just plonks Ben Stiller in each relevant location, there’re no trials to overcome because everything just works out fine – a scene where he’s literally swallowed by a volcanic eruption is resolved by just cutting to the next scene with him being completely fine! – and there’s no struggle for Walter as a character because he’s got this great support net of family and friends that the movie tries to pass off as contributing to his doldrums.
This is a movie about a person with a good life thinking it’s awful and pretending they have troubles. This is a First World Movie. This movie is the friend of yours who went to Bali 20 years ago and tells you all the time about how you need to travel.
This movie wants to be inspirational and whimsical, and inspiring and uplifting and I suppose that for a great many people who haven’t seen it done better in other films, it might be, but the end result is a muddled mess of half-plot and empty ideas that doesn’t live up to what it’s trying to do because it wasn’t there to begin with
And what’s more, this whimsical uplifting tale of self-discovery is an adaptation of a short story that ends with the main character meeting up with his wife and daydreaming that he’s facing down a firing squad. Why not just make it a mediocre movie instead of an adaptation of a pithy short story that doesn’t deserve this as its filmic equivalent? (Ironically, James Thurber was also disappointed with the 1947 adaptation and discussed this in a letter he wrote…to Life magazine)
Now having said all of that, I did enjoy Kristen Wiig’s performance. I think she’s just inherently likeable, and although this is a role that could’ve been played by any actress (it feels like it was written for Jennifer Aniston), she was charming enough throughout. The movie also has an amazing soundtrack, even if it does reinforce my theory that Of Monsters And Men should rename themselves Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Rip Offs.
And although I didn’t enjoy the story, the movie is beautiful and that is in fact a huge saving grace. The film may be trying to do the whole “finding yourself in another country” motif, but it at least gives us an excuse for a whole bunch of places for Stuart Dryburgh (director of photography on heaps of movies, notably The Piano) to put in front of a lens to great success. For every stunning vista in Iceland, there’s a matching beautiful shot of New York City and the whole film just pops out of the screen with its visuals, and that also extends to some nifty design in the opening credits that I really liked.
So yeah – didn’t like it. But if you’re living a comfortable life and that’s just awful, maybe this is the film for you. If you want to see really pretty shots of urban and natural landscapes, then this is the film for you. If you want to see a movie about an uptight man finding more to his life than his routine that stars an actor usually known for his “comedy” roles, then get Stranger Than Fiction which is a thousand times the movie that this is trying to be.
All images come from the film’s official Facebook page, save for the poster at the top.