THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY review by Mark Walters – Ben Stiller brings back the family film

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY review by Mark Walters – Ben Stiller brings back the family film


The concept of a “family film” has been lost in recent years. These days the closest we get is animated kids’ fare, or whatever Disney is offering in the area of live action formulaic films. In fact, it’s become rare we see a movie that’s just rated PG and not PG-13. While this year’s THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY may not appear on the surface to be a family film, it is in many ways similar to some of the safer movies of the early 1980s. A loose remake of the 1947 version of THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, which starred the great Danny Kaye, Stiller’s version explores a much more fantastical look and feel. It should also be noted that Stiller is in front of and behind the camera on this one, his first theatrical film as director since TROPIC THUNDER in 2008.

Our story opens with Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) doing something we’ve all done… balancing his checkbook. He then fiddles a bit with an online dating website, looking at the profile of a co-worked named Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), but some technical issues with the site find him calling an administrator (the voice of Patton Oswalt). While heading to work, we get the first taste of Walter’s day dreaming exploits, and are vividly thrown into one of his imaginary heroic scenarios. Walter arrives at his job, working for LIFE magazine as a photo negative archivist, only to find out the company is changing dramatically and ending the print version of the magazine. This means several people will lose their jobs. The man bringing the bad news and doing the firing is Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), a thick-bearded corporate type with no sympathy or compassion for any of the company’s long-time workers. Walter receives a package from a highly respected photographer and frequent contributor to the magazine, which includes a note stating the man’s finest-ever work is included in one of the negatives… and alas, Water cannot find that one negative. Once Hendricks learns of the supposedly special image Mitty received, he insists it must be the cover of the final issue. In an unlikely turn of events, Walter and Cheryl strike up what becomes an ongoing conversation as a result of the missing negative, and almost find themselves partnering up to find a strategy. Walter is faced with the problem of finding what never showed up, and ultimately realizes he must track down the elusive photographer, which sparks a rather wild adventure. For the first time in his life, Walter Mitty is doing something exciting.

There’s an interesting and somewhat uneven balance of comedy and drama in the film, which may just be the one flaw in an otherwise enjoyable experience. Some of the fantasy moments go so broad and strange that it takes away from the effectiveness of the dramatic scenes. I have to think had the comical elements been toned down just a bit, the overall narrative might have felt a little more cohesive and smart. As it is, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is a pretty solid cinematic experience, and one of the safest films of the year for all audiences. Many will relate to Walter’s monotonous job and the desire to get out there and do something exciting, and for some the idea of seeing someone you really like that barely notices you will also be easy to identify with. Personally, I enjoyed the concepts of Mitty’s wild daydreams, as I’ve had more than a few of those myself. There’s also an interesting melding that goes on as the film progresses, as Walter’s real life begins to sync up with his fantasies, blending the two elements together in a smart and realistic way.

Ben Stiller is one those comedic actors that has proven he can pull off drama with no problems. His performance here is fairly subtle and in many ways downplayed, nowhere near as manic and frenzied as his more comedic fare. His Walter Mitty is an everyman who wants more out of life, but has just accepted his banal existence… but what if you just made that leap, actually took a risk or two and sought out the adventure we all secretly crave? What would happen? Would it pay off? Some critics have judged the film harshly, saying it’s more of a hipster fantasy movie that a solid narrative. While I can understand that label I’m not sure I’d agree with it, as I enjoyed the experience and found it satisfying in more ways than one might expect. While Stiller is quite good in the film, many of the other performances feel a little underwritten, especially Kristen Wiig as Cheryl. We know she’s the object of Walter’s affection and desire, but we don’t get much development of her as a role in a story, leaving me to wonder about the character “Why her?” Wiig is fairly likable in the role, I guess I just wanted it to be a tad more fleshed out. Adam Scott is effectively nasty as the corporate baddie in the piece, and provides the story with a strong and annoying foil – my gripe with him was the lack of any real justice for his character at the end. In these types of stories, you pretty much know where things are headed, so it’s just a matter of how you get there, but in the case of Adam Scott’s character I wanted a better resolve to his nastiness. I guess you could say it’s a case of wanting the villain of the story to really get what’s coming to them, and here it just didn’t play out that way. Shirley MacLaine is briefly in the story, and has some great moments, but again it seemed like there was more story there we didn’t see. Kathryn Hahn finds ways to sparkle as Walter’s sister and wannabe thespian, the less successful and less-reliable of the siblings. But the shining star of the piece is easily Sean Penn as the mysterious master photographer Sean O’Connell, the man who sends the package with the missing negative. Penn’s screentime could practically be called a cameo, but it’s so effective and the exchange between him and Stiller is so solid, it practically overwhelms the whole piece. And there’s also Patton Oswalt, who is mostly just heard as a voice on the phone, but is also quite great providing just the right amount of comic relief calling Walter back at the worst possible times.

The other big star of the piece is the soundtrack song selections, many of which will sound familiar (you’ve probably heard many of them in commercials) and some that are true classics, but all of which fit the scenes and scenery perfectly. And I guess it’s only fair to note the exotic locations featured in the film, all beautifully shot and implemented into the story smartly. Stiller didn’t just make a solid film, he made a really good-looking film. The cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh complements every moment, even if it’s a dull office hallway, giving the movie a highly-polished feel. At 114 minutes, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY feels a little longer than it is, but the end result is pretty satisfying and enjoyable. It never quite seems to hit a home run the way you want it to, but it does work more often than not. In the end, it’s nice to see an “adult” story the whole family could enjoy, without the fear of the usual Hollywood trappings making it more seedy than it should be. It’s definitely safe to say with Christmas films opening like AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and 47 RONIN, this is the closest we’re going to get to the perfect Holiday movie this year.

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY opens December 25, 2013

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.