I caught the Ben Stiller opus, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, yesterday. The best thing I can say about the film is that it had about 8 minutes of a seemingly disinterested Sean Penn, and maybe 20 minutes of the luminous Kristen Wiig, along with some spectacular outdoor footage, and some fine music on the sound track.
Stiller stars as the mild-mannered Mitty and he also directed the film. The film works on some levels, and is just okay or weak on others. What I liked was an opportunity to see Iceland, even when it posed as Greenland or Afghanistan. The special effects like the erupting volcano ash cloud was pretty cool too. As was the trekking in the Himalayas montage.
The story is an update of the original short story (just 2100 words – about 2 and half times the length of this review) by James Thurber that was written and published in 1939. That story, about a day dreamer, was made into a movie starring Danny Kaye in 1947.
In this new version, which opened on Christmas Day, the screenplay moves the story to the present day. Mitty is the ‘negative assets manager’ (photo archivist) for Life Magazine which is about to publish its last print issue before becoming an online only publication. With this transition, jobs will be lost and many employees will be terminated.
When famed photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) submits a set of negatives for the last issue, Negative #25 can’t be found. Did Walter Mitty lose it? Was it misplaced in receiving, did O’Connell even send it?
Walter zones out as Hendricks and staff watch him
These are the questions before us. The pressure mounts as the Transition Manager at Life, a Ted Hendricks played by Adam Scott, puts up with a few rounds of Mitty’s delaying tactics, before finally laying down the law – the next time I see you, you will show me the negative, and if you don’t have it, you’re fired.
Now that gets Mitty’s attention. But he still doesn’t have O’Connell’s negative. And sooner than you think, Mitty is fired, as are many others at the magazine, including Cheryl Melhoff (Wiig), a new staffer in Accounting, or HR, or something, who Mitty has a secret crush on.
Mitty has no choice. Although he is pretty much of a milquetoast, a dreamer, and a guy who has never done anything in his entire life that one could even call a highlight – now he must track down the elusive and peripatetic O’Connell. With some help from Cheryl, a few clues are developed, and Mitty sets off to Iceland in pursuit of O’Connell.
Once Mitty’s adventure begins, his dreams, or moments when he ‘zoned out’ have now all become so very real. Simply he finds himself in the kind of real life situations that apparently matched his dreams in which he was a brave and courageous hero.
There’s your set up.
Stiller’s film is pleasant, and even diverting. But it has no edge to it. He will leap from a helicopter into the Arctic Ocean, fight off a shark, flee from a fast-moving volcanic ash cloud, run and skateboard across the wilderness of Iceland, deal with Afghan warlords,
and trek the Himalayas.
But we aren’t on the edge of our seats. The situations are perilous, but we are never going to think that Walter is in ‘grave danger’.
The same runs true with the romantic element of Walter and Cheryl. There’s no fire or passion by either of them.
Stiller’s film is safe, and pretty, and the locations are awesome, but like the covers of Life Magazine, the film is more of a still life instead of moving images. We know and can see when Walter should be exhilarated. We know when his heart should be pounding. And most of all we know when, if we were in those kinds of situations, we might let out a big laugh, or a grand smile.
Not Stiller. As a director, he has Stiller the actor do a marvelous job of creating a zoned-out look. The problem is that he looks the same – zoned out or not. Just because he is a bland guy, in a mundane job, should not mean he can’t even display an emotion. This is a story built around the literal concepts of fire and ice – a foundation for a romantic adventure. But we as the viewers are never taken out of our comfort zone. While the film can’t be called a snoozer, it is very far from the thrill ride you had hoped for.
The film’s tag line reads: Stop Dreaming. Start Living. Which is what Walter Mitty does. So it is accurate. But this is not anything like an Indiana Jones movie. It is just Walter Mitty finally doing something noteworthy but the impact isn’t particularly strong. Walter takes the Number 1 train to work in midtown. Oh, okay. Walter is in the Arctic Ocean. Oh, okay. So I’m not going to recommend the film, and I still don’t understand why this film opened against some very strong competition during the Christmas season. Rather than plunking down your dollars at the box office, wait for the film to become available on a streaming service. Three point zero out of five is the rating.
Check out the trailer: