The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) – Directed by Ben Stiller – Starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Patton Oswalt, Kathryn Hahn, and Sean Penn.
THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is Ben Stiller’s ode to getting someone to give him $90 million to make a movie about a guy who is astounded by looking out the window of an airplane.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is the world’s most boring man, and he has an adventure. In this adventure, he learns a very important lesson, which is that there’s a Papa John’s in Iceland. The end.
You know he’s boring because he has to muster up the courage to electronically wink at a woman on eHarmony, so we get images of Walter’s finger hovering over his laptop keyboard. He’s going to press it! Is he going to press it? He’s going to press it! He’s … he’s got to think about it. He presses it! Oooh, technical failure! The wink won’t go through! Cockblocked by technology!
There’s nothing wrong with the premise of MITTY, of course, and Stiller the Director certainly knows how to put a movie together, and Stiller the Actor certainly knows how to deliver the scenes that Stiller the Director wants. The problem is that what Stiller the Director wants is to make a movie that means something, and so he crafts a story in which Stiller the Actor treats jumping into a helicopter as an exhilarating experience.
The opening 45 minutes set up Walter’s boringness and it’s an obnoxious, dreadful experience. We see Walter in a tiny, neat apartment. We see Walter in a tiny, neat hallway. We see Walter with an annoying sister and a mother who’s being moved into a new place. Walter pays for it because Walter is boring but a nice guy. He’s got a crush on that eHarmony woman, who is a new employee at Life Magazine, where Walter works. Her name is Cheryl Melhoff and she’s played by Kristen Wiig, and even in the worst parts of this movie, she’ll give you a reason to watch.
I hated the first 45 minutes of the movie. It’s obvious, obnoxious filmmaking, personified by a Snidely Whiplash villain played by Adam Scott. Ted is brought to Life to dismantle the magazine and transition it to its online form, and it creates this weird narrative dissonance between the very serious issue of people losing their jobs with a cartoonish Adam Scott wearing an even more cartoonish beard treating everything like it’s a big joke. Walter also escapes into these vivid daydreams, which are completely pointless because we know that they’re not actually happening and worse, they don’t reveal anything new about Walter’s character.
The only good part of these opening 45 minutes is Todd (Patton Oswalt), the eHarmony representative who tries to help Walter out with his winking problem.
Once Walter goes on his adventure, the film picks up. Walter is a negative asset manager, which means that he works with photographs. The magazine’s most famous photojournalist, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), has sent in his last batch of photos and lets everyone know that he wants picture #25 to get the final cover. Problem is, photo #25 is missing, and Walter nuts up and goes off to track Sean down on the other side of the world because Sean doesn’t believe in phones or permanent addresses. He’s a bad ass, yo.
So Walter heads to Greenland, which eventually takes him to Iceland for a near miss with a volcanic eruption. Walter has adventures. He flies in a plane and looks out a window, and we know this is amazing for Walter because he hasn’t touched any of his airline food. No, he’s far too busy looking out the magic pane of glass that reveals Greenland.
Yep. You paid to watch it, so soak it in.
He talks with locals. He jumps in a helicopter. He jumps out of a helicopter. He fights a shark. He’s rescued. He’s brought to Iceland. He ends up at a Papa John’s, which is meaningful because he used to work at a Papa John’s after his father died.
There are scenes here that work, though, and if MITTY had given us more of Walter’s adventure, I would have liked the film more, I think. None of it is perfect, but at least the film becomes something in the Lands of Green and Ice. Yeah, it’s a maudlin something, but at least Walter is out there, doing things, interacting with people, and having experiences.
Sure, the sequence of Walter skateboarding down a winding road looks like the premise of a Ben Stiller skit bagging on movies that give you images of a middle aged man on a skateboard holding his arms out wide like he’s Leo on Titanic, but here, it’s played straight. It’s effectively shot, too, and edited together, even if it adds to the tonal dissonance the film never escapes.
One thing I’ve always admired about Stiller is that he’s a team player; even in movies where he’s the star, I rarely feel like he’s anything but part of a team of people making a movie. The same can be said here. Stiller is smart enough to surround himself with incredibly talented people: Wiig, Scott, Penn, Oswalt, and Shirley MacLaine are all really talented people, but I feel like the film was mostly miscast. Not that these people don’t belong here, but rather that some of them were given the wrong parts to play. From the first frame, MITTY feels like it exists to feed Stiller’s desire to do something more than make people laugh, and the film suffers for it. The Walter Mitty character he’s created would be better served by Patton Oswalt, just like Adam Scott’s Ted feels more ready made for Stiller. Slide Scott over into the role of eHarmony rep and now maybe the actor’s personalities can be made to work for the film, instead of against it.
Stiller is not an actor that has a lot of self-generated personality. He’s great at giving his characters personalities (often over-sized personalities), but Ben Stiller disappears into roles. I think that’s why he and Vince Vaughn make such a good team: Vaughn turns every role he’s in into Vince Vaughn, while Stiller does a better job at becoming someone else. (I wish Stiller had just concentrated on directing this movie, because MITTY does have a nice visual style to it.) Unfortunately, when you give an actor who can disappear into a role a character to play that has little there, you end up with a bland performance. By the end of the movie, the lesson Walter has learned is that you look cooler with a beard, even if everyone in the movie who has a beard in those initial scenes is a total dickbag.
Walter is always restrained, always held back, but the truth is that Walter is a bit like those cows in Fast Food Nation – even if you opened the gate, they’re not going anywhere.