[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 New York Film Festival. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens tomorrow.]
The problem with platitudes is that they may profess a nice sentiment, but the statement tends to be an obvious one, and it will be a fleeting memory by the time you finish reading that t-shirt or bumper sticker. Platitudes can’t cut deeper and provide a thoughtful, lasting impression that would cause us to seriously take stock of our lives and values. Ben Stiller’s two-hour platitude, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, may seem like it’s championing bravery and adventure, but the presentation, while initially enjoyable, quickly becomes hollow, frivolous, and overbearing. It’s a movie where a man’s facial hair defines his character more than his actions.
Walter Mitty (Stiller) works as a photo manager for Life Magazine and spends a large portion of his time daydreaming about being confident and courageous. He also daydreams about his new co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), but can’t even work up the nerve to send her a “wink” on eHarmony. While working in the photo lab, Walter receives a roll from legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) with photo #25 being singled out as “the quintessence of Life” (literally the magazine, but thematically it couldn’t be more obvious). The smarmy exec (Adam Scott) in charge of shutting down the print edition of Life to move the publication to an online format wants the vaunted image for the cover of the final issue, but Walter can’t find the photo. Resolved to solve the mystery of the missing photo, Walter sets out on a real adventure to track down Sean and discover “the quintessence of Life”.
Stiller opens his movie with a nice mix of quiet and playful visuals, but this approach becomes tedious as the story wears on. It’s cute to see Walter agonize over trying to let Cheryl know he has a crush on her, and Stiller has some fun letting words dance across the background as Walter ambles through his humdrum life. The daydreams can also be enjoyable like when Walter has a big, street-shattering battle with the exec or saves Cheryl’s three-legged dog from a burning building. However, Stiller starts to push too hard when Walter starts daydreaming of a Curious Case of Benjamin Button parody, and it’s a scene that will get some laughs, but has nothing to do with the character or his relationships. At best, this daydream provides a clear delineation between the real world and Walter’s fantasies, but it also signals how little character development Walter needs since all of his other fantasies are about confidence and adventure.
Walter may be seeking the “quintessence of life”, but Walter Mitty is really the quintessence of Ben Stiller. With his latest directorial effort, Stiller has crafted an ode to his typecasting: the timid guy who becomes confident. It’s a character he’s played in There’s Something about Mary, Meet the Parents, Night at the Museum, The Heartbreak Kid, and too many more. I prefer Stiller when he’s doing ridiculous characters like Derek Zoolander and White Goodman, and the daydreams allow him to go in that direction like when he briefly plays a European mountaineer or the aforementioned Benjamin Button parody. The movie doesn’t necessarily need more of these goofy figures, but their presence shows that Stiller, even at his best, has become a painfully predictable actor.
In the case of Walter Mitty, Stiller is a timid guy who becomes confident through the power of travel. Except Walter’s travels still carry the air of fantasy. They’re lonely experiences marked by distracting quirks and minor interactions with others. Walter gets into extraordinary situations like fighting off a shark and skateboarding down a mountain, but apparently there’s no room for meaningful conversation with another human being. And even though Walter stops daydreaming, the plot can be so contrived and coincidental that it’s conceivable he’s still fantasizing. For example, Walter gets periodic phone calls from an overly helpful eHarmony customer service representative (Patton Oswalt) who wants to boost Walter’s online dating profile. These moments would be a far better fit for a daydream, but they’re shoehorned in to remind us that Walter is (arguably) living his life to the fullest. It’s not enough for the audience to be amazed at how Walter fought off a shark; we have to hear the customer service rep’s giddy reaction to Walter’s nonchalant recounting of fighting off the shark.
The movie never ceases to remind us that Walter is finally making his dreams a reality, but the reminders are presented in the broadest manner possible. I love it when movies are earnest and life-affirming, but Walter Mitty has all the honesty of a commercial. Advertisements don’t need to speak in detail. They speak in assertive, vapid statements. At one point, Stiller’s direction is so overbearing with these kinds of schmaltzy pronouncements that the movie basically becomes a mini-commercial for Air Greenland. The good people at Air Greenland could literally cut out the entire sequence, put it on TV, and it would work. But as part of a larger movie, it only highlights the shallowness of Walter’s journey.
The movie can’t seem to stop trumpeting its own profundity despite surrounding Walter with characters that are only slightly shallower than he is. Cheryl is nothing more than a trophy albeit a charming one thanks to the endearing Wiig; Sean is just some guru figure/MacGuffin; and I can’t recall the exec’s name, but I remember him for his evil beard rather than anything resembling an authentic personality. It’s odd for Walter to feel the need to jump into daydreams when he has such a cartoony foe waiting for him in real life. The exec could easily be Scott’s character “Derek” from Step Brothers, but now with a beard that looks like it was glued on. The Derek character can work in a comedy like Step Brothers, but it can’t in a movie where we’re supposed to be inspired by the protagonist’s personal growth.
Personal growth in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is measured not in relationships or serious hardships, but in facial hair. When we see Walter’s beard, we know he hasn’t had time to shave because he’s been too busy traveling. It’s a superficial marker of achievements that are devoid of an emotional reward. Being spontaneous and traveling are fine things to do, but Stiller has turned them into a brochure rather than a fulfilling story. Like most travel brochures, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is filled with pretty pictures and a motivation tone, but it lacks the depth and thoughtfulness to depict what truly makes us better people.