by Ken B.
When we first meet him, you can’t help but feel bad for Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller). He doesn’t believe he’s accomplished anything noteworthy. He lives in a cramped apartment. He’s not outgoing. He’s bored. To escape his life, he’ll often stare off into space and conjure up grand tapestries of a world where he is confident, focused, and brave, getting what he wants while taking down those who are against him. However, his constant imagination often affects his communication skills. This lack of focus proves dangerous when Life magazine, where he’s worked with photo negatives for sixteen years, downsizes to an online operation, and leaves poor impressions with Ted (Adam Scott), the manager in charge of choosing the employees for the company to keep.
For the final print issue, Walter gets a series of prints from a regular contributor, the isolated nature photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). In his latest roll of film, a letter from O’Connell dubs negative 25 “the quintessence of life”, and it is decided that it will be the image on the cover. However, Walter discovers the film is missing that one image. He decides to track down O’Connell and find the picture, in a grand mission that will take him from a Greenland fishing vessel to the Himalaya Mountains. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, also directed by Stiller, includes this plot with a handful of characters of varying eccentricity and some breathtaking visuals. However, the more unstable question is whether or not it turns out to have been that worthwhile. The basic components of the movie are all decent in their own right, but collectively, it isn’t terribly memorable.
This 114 minute movie is often at its most vivid with Walter’s fantasy scenes, which explode off the screen in a kaleidoscope of the surreal and colorful. The adventure to find the photograph takes up most of the second and third acts, and is credible in its own right, vast in scale, ranging in scenes from escaping an erupting volcano, to a quiet sequence where Walter attempts to give his Stretch Armstrong to a few Icelandic kids in return for their skateboard, with neither able to understand each other. The scenes most important to character development take place back home, where Walter deals in more common areas, like attempting to catch the attention of Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), one of his coworkers. Early on, this takes the form of visiting her eHarmony profile, where an error forces him to speak to a customer service rep named Todd (Patton Oswalt). The character goes on to become an echo of the audience as the film progresses.
The acting is fine. Stiller shows a good amount of insight as Walter, providing satisfying levels of sympathy for what could be otherwise be an uninteresting protagonist in the film’s setup. He works well with whoever he’s onscreen with, like Penn, Wiig, or Shirley MacLaine as Walter’s mother. They all bring their respective talents to roles of varying sizes. The effects are magnificent and broad, which certainly prove to be the centerpiece of the film. It’s hard not to become enraptured in the scenery, shot by Stuart Drybergh.
While there is a lot to like about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, like its visual effects and impressive cast, it must be noted that there are definite times where there is a curious lack of realization and motivation. By the time it ends, you don’t really feel like you have seen a completely fulfilling movie. It’s disappointing and frustrating, especially when there are unquestionable elements of high quality and merit. There’s just an empty feeling that washes through you. There was more that could have been tapped in to within its runtime, considering the scale of which it presents itself.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has a certain degree of charm, but it’s ultimately doesn’t have anything that helps it stand out, whether within one’s memory or in a streamline of movies. As a night’s entertainment, it’s serviceable, but there’s very little on display in this adaptation of the James Thurber short story that suggests anything groundbreaking. When all is said and done, all a viewer can do is look around for that extra push of character and screenplay strength that never quite arrived.