Ben Stiller shines on both sides of the camera in this easygoing fantasy, which makes up for a weak script with visual flair.
To see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to, to draw closer, to see and be amazed.
–LIFE Magazine motto
There’s a moment later on in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty that essentially sums up the spirit of the film, and is the litmus test for whether this type of illogical whimsy is for you: in the Afghan wilderness, Walter gets past a group of warlords on horseback by offering them his mother’s clementine cake. Delighted, these hardened killers let Walter through to continue his journey. And this isn’t a fantasy sequence — this is actual plot.
So if you’re looking for a film that makes sense, or follows the rules of reality, this isn’t it. But what Mitty is — as directed and acted by Ben Stiller — is a charming, lightweight fable, more akin to Forrest Gump than Into the Wild. And since I came in with measured expectations, I enjoyed it quite a bit.
Loosely based on — no, that’s not even right; let’s say “inspired by” — James Thurber’s classic short story, the eponymous Walter Mitty is a dreamer; not necessarily bored with his life, but easily distracted. He works at LIFE Magazine, as the “negative assets manager”: essentially, he’s responsible for developing the rolls of film sent in by the mag’s freelance photographers, a pool shrinking by the year until it seems only one is left: the legendary, award-winning Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn, magnetic and likeable!). But Walter is good at what he does, so good that Sean sends him a commemorative wallet with LIFE’s motto embossed, though the two have never actually met.
But Walter does have a problem, in the crush he’s developed on a new hire, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig, downplaying her usual idiosyncrasies), whose lack of knowledge of his existence doesn’t stop him from fantasizing about her: rescuing her three-legged dog from an explosion; seducing her as a rugged Italian mountaineer; etc, but he’s unable to get through. Even the eHarmony account he sets up (with the help of one exceedingly curious tech, voiced by Patton Oswalt) doesn’t let him send Cheryl a “wink,” because the personal information in his profile is so empty and boring, he may as well not be a real person.
However, it isn’t long before his love and work problems collide, as LIFE is bought out and going online-only. The new management team (led by a bearded and exceedingly punchable Adam Scott), in between rounds of firings, wants to use for the final cover a new photo from Sean that is supposedly “the quintessence of life,” — number 25 on the roll. But number 25 is missing, and may have not even arrived in the first place, so to save his job Walter embarks on a unlikely globetrotting quest, along the way finally doing some “noteworthy and mentionable” things.
That’s just the film’s first third, as the bulk of it is a travelogue, featuring the beautifully photographed landscapes of the Arctic Circle and beyond. The fantasy sequences, heavily prevalent in the beginning, become less and less frequent, as the film’s reality becomes more and more fantastical: Walter jumps into — and out of — a helicopter piloted by a drunk Greenlander; he skateboards away from a volcano; he hikes the Himalayas, and all sorts of other things that your average human (let alone Walter) would normally find impossible. But that’s the kind of film this is — one that revels in the impossible, even as much as it finds charm in the mundane. As a viewer, you will probably figure out what truly is the “quintessence of life” long before Walter does, but more than simply discovering how to live life to the full, he re-discovers his long-dormant childhood aspirations, and is given increasingly unlikely opportunities to realize them.
Even as the story skips along and the narrative cheats pile up (the kind where mistakes are quickly remedied, hurts are easily forgiven, and all dreams are fulfilled), the visuals on the screen are nothing short of gorgeous. Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography is full of color and (dare I say) life, and Stiller’s attention to the little details — the delightful opening credits, the music cues — helps to elevate the screenplay. Not to make things feel “bigger” than they are, though there’s a lot of ambition and money on the screen, but to emphasize its more whimsical aspects. It’s an incredibly difficult line to walk, this tone he’s reaching for, and he gets pretty darn close to it. But all that ambition does have a price tag, and in this case it’s the distracting product placement that almost sinks the project. How are we supposed to, as viewers, let ourselves be taken on this ride when the signs of soulless corporate cash-grabs are everywhere — from the ubiquitous eHarmony, to Cinnabon, to even Papa John’s, which valiantly tries to justify its presence in the story but is simply an awkward interlude between Walter’s adventures? It’s a real shame, and would typically get it docked a full letter grade, but it’s the holidays so I’ll let it off with a stern warning.
Griping aside, Walter Mitty is a good-natured, almost saccharine film, even an allegorical one, and its unwillingness to adhere to the typical rules will either charm you, or make you want to gag. Is it inspirational, or aimless? Is it warm-hearted, or artificial? It’s a little bit of all of these things. It’s a comfort film, not too dark or too serious or too crude, but as welcome as a cup of hot chocolate in December. Sometimes, that’s enough.