“I haven’t really been anywhere noteworthy or mentionable.”
Movies are supposed to have a voice. Just like any story, conversation, or exchange of a few simple words. That’s the entire point. Like us, words aren’t meant to live without a defined reason. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty exists, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has significance. It’s a beautiful film to watch, and it grows just as much as its namesake character. Even then, there is no cohesion or tone to the film. Some scenes come and go without registering. Others penetrate so deeply they’re hard to shake. It feels like a stilted recollection of memories. It’s hard to look away. That being said, once the credits roll, you realize you didn’t get much out of it.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a photo negative archiver at Life Magazine, which in the film is on the cusp of transitioning solely to an online format. Jobs will be lost, and Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) is the man handling the downsizing. He’s a bully of sorts to Walter. The last cover of Life is to be issued with a photo by famed freelance photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). Walter looks for negative 25, which Sean calls his quintessence of life. It comes up missing, and that’s where the journey begins. Walter searches for a needle in the ocean.
The film starts with a cold opening. And by that I mean there is no dialogue for the first four minutes. We see Walter in his natural environment, cloaked in grey tones and mostly isolated from the outside world. He’s a worrywart and over thinker. The kind of guy that frets over his Match.com dating profile, and if he should send a “wink” to Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), a woman new to Life’s workplace. Walter’s traits, flaws, and eventual path are all plainly revealed. It’s clear where this man will go. But the first half of the film, and his journey, is so monotone and bland that it nearly lost me. Sure, his character is meant to be boring from the start, but that doesn’t mean the audience has to be bored to death with him. Kudos to the many interventions, which are Walter’s fantastical moments of “zoning out.” I would have turned off the movie without them.
These daydreams often involve Cheryl, and are wonderfully executed. Stiller clearly has a style and a vision for them. They span the spectrum of all film genres and allow a glimpse into the day-to-day life Walter wishes he lived. There are some roaring laughs, including one hilarious joke aimed at The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Walter takes advice from Cheryl. She helps him on his quest for still 25. But none of it really matters. We don’t explore Walter’s character and his growth as an individual until he finally tracks down Sean in the Himalayas towards the movie’s end. Stories like this, so grand in scale and scope, often forget the little things. Why is Walter so timid? What causes his daydreams? We are told how he used to be as a child, but never why he changed. Background information is crucial in a story built upon making the audience feel empathy for the protagonist.
Frankly, I did not like most of this movie. I was disappointed because I wanted to love it. Let down because it is so beautifully shot, and full of such telling metaphors (i.e. Walter taking a leap of faith / going headfirst into a storm / zooming downhill with no brakes.) It finds redemption too late, but that’s better than never. Walter joins Sean as he waits for a rare mountain cat to come into frame. And that’s where we learn, as Walter asks when he’ll take the picture, “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.” They are affecting, honest words that echo the technological movement faced in the film, and our lives as well. The beauty really does lie in the aesthetic.
This is such an up and down movie. It’s a hard sell to recommend but just as tough to suggest skipping altogether. With a better script, or clearer direction by Stiller, the movie might have succeeded. It’s a shame. Beautiful cinematography is scattered throughout the film, the soundtrack is uplifting, and the acting is more than adequate. But maybe that’s the whole point. It starts bland, as do all things. We have to take it upon ourselves to add the variety and spice to life. Make it appetizing and worthwhile. Walter works at Life magazine, seemingly because he is in fact literally working on his own life. He learns to stay in the moment and savor every second. By the end you wonder why it couldn’t have been infused with that much heart to begin with. Walter Mitty only delivers half the goods.
“Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”
Rating: 2.5 out of 5