Review: ‘The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty’ (NYFF 2013)

Walter Mitty

The debut poster for Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty | Ben Stiller | December 25, 2013

*New York Film Festival 2013 Review*

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty
is a beloved short story by James Thurber that was previously released as feature film starring Danny Kaye in 1947. It’s remake has been in the works since 1994 with Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, Mike Myers, Sacha Baron Cohen and Johnny Depp thought of to star in the role and Ron Howard, Chuck Russell, Steven Spielberg, Mark Waters, and Gore Verbinski all originally slated to directed. After passing through these diverse group of people, both tasks ended up going to Ben Stiller, who stars and directs the 2013 adaptation of Walter Mitty, and it works magnificently.

When I look back at The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, I will always think back to the stunning cinematography that Stiller and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh capture on screen. Through the careful and considerate use of framing, Stiller gracefully lets us enter this imaginative world of the titular character, which works wondrous because it puts us right there in the mind of Walter Mitty.

You see, Walter is constantly experiencing extreme surreal daydreams, to the point where he literally zones out in public or mid-conversation, lost in his own mind. He has a wild imagination but it directly contradicts the half asleep nature of his life. He depressingly manages his checkbook, with money running out as he helps his mom move into a new apartment. His job as the negative asset manager (photo editor) of Life Magazine is at risk as the company plans to downsize their staff. It doesn’t help that he falls for his co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) who he’s too afraid to approach, and instead lurks over her e-Harmoney profile.

There’s a menial meaningless to Walter’s life, and soon he just may be out of a job. His new boss Ted (a bearded Adam Scott) is in charge of the transition from print to online, deciding who gets to keep their job. Ted immediately clashes with Walter, not appreciate of Walter’s trips to imagination land. It doesn’t help that Walter is responsible for handling the final cover of Life, sent by famed photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), who Walter has worked with for over a decade. Only Walter can’t find the last negative, which Sean calls the “quintessential image of life.” In order to save his career and to make sure the last issue of Life gets the photo it deserves, Walter makes it his mission to track down Sean in order to find the negative for the cover.

This sends Walter on a journey not only in search of finding Sean, but also to find himself. He becomes motivated not only by the prospect of impressing Cheryl, but also to take himself out of the ho-hum routine of his life. It’s his chance to finally live out all of his dreams.

When we first meet Walter, we see him constantly divulge in his daydreams, some where he is a heroic lover to Cheryl, others as the funniest man in the room, or an action hero. He dreams about all the things he is not. Some sequences work better than others as they sometimes disrupt the film’s pace and tone. But they are all there to prove a point. Screenwriter Steven Conrad does his best job at balancing between the two, and for the most part it works. Walter needs to find himself before his dreams become more heroic that he will ever become.

We learn that Walter experienced a tremendous loss at a young age, never getting to fulfill the dreams or desires of his youth, which explains a lot. He finally gets to right this on his amazing journey, traveling to Greenland and Iceland, racing against volcanic eruptions, jumping off of helicopters into the ocean, battling sharks and scaling the Himalayas. It sets him free, allowing him to start dreaming in real life.

Slowly but surely, through his quest to find Sean, he begins to live and explore the deepest parts of the world, finding himself, and slowly daydreaming less and less. You begin to become more unsure of whether or not he is dreaming or actually living out certain events as he becomes more aware, and alive. We come to connect with Walter throughout the film, coming to terms with our own lives and realizing that like Walter, we need to indulge more in life’s pleasures instead of becoming slaves to the demands of work or others.

I can’t say enough about how right Ben Stiller was for this role. He brings it him in a wonderfully understated performance that has range and depth. As a director, he anchors the film to enormous lengths, creating powerful shots that have the scope an imagination of a huge blockbuster, but are crafted with the mind of a heartfelt director. Stiller ties the film together with an incredible soundtrack featuring songs from Arcade Fire, David Bowie, Of Monsters and Men and Jose Gonzalez that are essential to certain scenes making them pop and glow even more than they already do. Major credit to the work of Stuart Dryburgh who captures some beautiful sequences in Iceland/Greenland.

Wiig is charming in her role creating enough chemistry with Stiller that is believable and keeps you rooting for them. Adam Scott reaches the brutal jerk levels that he did in Step Brothers, proving that he is an actor with the ability to make you both love and hate him. Sean Penn has limited screen time, but he is as good as ever in it, reminding us once again of how great he can be. You also get to hear the voice of Patton Oswalt quite a bit in a cameo-esque role, that has a great payoff.

If you let it, Walter Mitty will take you on your own journey of self reflection and inspection, just like it did for its titular character. I expect that some people may be turned off by the daydream sequences that the film throws at you. I will agree that some were a bit long, and maybe could have been cut, but they were a necessary evil in order to help us see the progress that he makes along the way. This is as much of a coming of age film as it is a fantasy, action-adventure film. In truth, there’s no one right way to categorize it. It moved me quite a bit, watching this middle-aged man grow as a person and become all the better for it.

With a unique pace and its fantasy sequences, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty may not be for everyone. However, it will dazzle those who open up their mind and heart and are willing to look at the character as much as they are willing to look into themselves. Ben Stiller has always been a good director, but with Walter Mitty he takes the step towards being a great one. It’s one hell of a ride.

Rating: 8.0/10