"Beautiful things don't ask for attention."
After close to twenty years in perpetual development hell, Ben Stiller recently rescued an adaptation of James Thurber's short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by agreeing to star in and direct the film. With only four feature directing credits to his name, he seemed like an odd choice to helm such an ambitious film, but his most recent directorial effort, Tropic Thunder, showed that he could handle a large scope picture well. So would he deliver on the promise shown on that film, or would this be a fumbling misstep? Read on to find out….
The story opens on Walter Mitty (Stiller), a negative assets manager for Life Magazine who has a serious problem with daydreaming. He frequently zones out and imagines himself a hero, which in reality he most certainly is not. He's a meek individual who just wants to ask out a woman named Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) that works at the magazine with him, but can't bring himself to do so, opting instead to "wink" at her on an online dating site to set up a "Pina Colada Song"-style meet cute. Instead, his crippling social anxiety and frequent daydreaming have put him at a major disadvantage.
When a strangely bearded man (Adam Scott) arrives at Life Magazine as part of a corporation that has acquired the magazine, he informs everyone that Life will be folding it's print edition, and that the next issue will be their last. Everyone is awaiting the arrival of a negative of a photograph taken by renowned photographer, and Walter's friend, Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) which he has said shows off "the quintessence of Life," and that they intend to use as the cover for the final issue. When Walter cannot find the negative among the roll that Sean sent, he decides to embark on a journey across the world to track down the elusive O'Connell and retrieve the negative.
To say that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a deeply flawed film is an understatement, however, it is not without its charm, particularly in light of its many flaws. Tonally the film is all over the map, spreading out from Walter's elaborate fantasy life which shades the first half of the film, making it impossible to settle in to any sort of rhythm. It was obviously intentional, but the script does the film no favors by going to such extremes to convey his daydreams that it removes any sort of grounding for the film. Thankfully as the film progresses and Walter begins his journey to find Sean, his daydreams cease, and the film becomes infinitely better as a result.
As for the script, it's easily the weakest element of the entire film, which is baffling considering how many hands it passed through during its long development process, but ultimately Steve Conrad's version suffers from a case of not knowing what it kind of film it wants to be. Take the two most convoluted daydreams from the early goings, one of which is a pavement chewing fight between Stiller and Scott's characters, and the other a baffling parody of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. These both go to such extreme lengths to convey the depths to which Walter's mind journeys when he zones out, but they play more like the inner life of some sort of madman, never mind a nice guy who feels more at home in fantasy than reality.
Walter's journey to Greenland, then Iceland, and various other parts of the globe is a much more grounded film, much easier to grab a hold of, and much more in line with the kind of film Stiller is trying to make. There are some nice bits in the early going, and thanks to the top notch work of cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, the film always looks gorgeous whether scaling mountains in Afghanistan, or discovering the dreary basement in which Walter works at Life Magazine. The film looks amazing, and that goes a long way towards rectifying many of the film's other significant flaws.
Stiller the actor has always suffered from a similar syndrome that the script does, not knowing when to be serious and when to be funny, and always seeming to throw that balance out of whack by wanting to do one or the other at the wrong moment. Here he manages to give one of his best performances, grounding the character in such a way that makes him relatable in spite of his borderline psychopathic delusions. The script's other major flaw is that it makes the character of Cheryl a little too perfect, in spite of a second act development that tries to overcompensate for this character flaw, and Wiig does a fine job playing this ideal woman. She's incredibly natural and in the moment at all times, but the script does her no favors.
Sean Penn is as reliably stoic and mysterious as ever, and Adam Scott relishes the chance to play a mustache twirling villain, but again, is done no favors by a script that prefers to have him be a totally irredeemable black hatted antagonist rather than an actual human being. The rest of the supporting cast is good as well, including a persistent eHarmony representative played by Patton Oswalt and an underused Shirley MacLaine as Walter's mother. And speaking of eHarmony, I realize that this is a Hollywood production, and that means that product placement pays some of the bills, but the bizarre choice to make Papa Johns and eHarmony integral parts of the plot was a bit jarring as well.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is clearly designed to be Stiller's magnum opus as a director, and while he does admirable work both in front of and behind the camera, it's too flawed for me to call it a total success. It is an easy film to like however, and wears its heart brazenly on its sleeve, making it a nice diversion for two hours, but it's deeply imperfect script makes it impossible for the film to be a true success. Many people will love the film, and I can easily see myself revisiting the film in a year or two and still being wooed by its many charms, but it has so many shades of wasted potential that I can't call it an unmitigated success.
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]