Sean Reviews Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty [NYFF 2013]

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The premise of director and star Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty—a very loose adaptation of James Thurber’s classic short story—should easily resonate with lots of people. Who among us hasn’t daydreamed about being something they’re not, or wished they had come up with the right thing to say in the right moment? I myself have an admittedly keen sense of imagination and l’esprit de l’escalier, so my interest was piqued not only for Stiller’s attempt at Oscar-baity earnestness but also at emotionally resonant comedy.  His eponymous character yearns to escape his mundane existence as a “Negative Assets Manager” at Life Magazine by fantasizing a better and more exciting life than the one he trudges through day in and day out, but the way the film tries to use these flights of fancy in order to impart the viewer with some sort of message ultimately—and frustratingly—rings hollow. Stiller’s film has a misplaced sense of self-importance and relies on a nearly conflict-free plot to allow Walter to literally skate through progressively ridiculous situations, and makes the mistake of thinking that a schmaltzy sense of whimsy, slick visuals, and charmingly self-deprecating humor can mask terribly misbegotten storytelling.

In the film, Life Magazine is making the harsh transition from print to digital, and the impending layoffs led by a dickish HR stiff named Ted (played by Adam Scott, whose usually-convincing douchebag character is bizarrely ineffective here) do an adequate job of kick-starting Walter’s meager motivation. You see, Walter has handled every single one of the magazine’s photo-negatives for sixteen years, and the stooges overseeing Life’s transition intend to use a shot that was recently sent to him by renowned photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) for the cover of the final issue. The big problem is that the negative, which according to Penn’s heady photographer contains the “quintessence of life,” has mysteriously gone missing from the sheet delivered to Walter, and the threat of being fired sends him on his laughable journey to find the wayward O’Connell, find the photo, and find himself. Before he heads off to solve this this preposterously dumb mystery he enlists the help of his co-worker Cheryl (played by Kristen Wiig who does her best with a blandly drawn female counterpart role), who we learn in the film’s prologue, through Walter’s aching decision whether to “wink” at her on E-Harmony or not, is someone he’s quite sweet on.

She somewhat easily—and totally absurdly—convinces him to get on a plane to Greenland since it was the last place O’Connell was seen, and from there the film takes a nose dive into contrived and sentimental pap that lazily marches along with Walter from one one-the-nose life lesson cased in a set piece to another. It’s obvious that these wildly unbelievable situations are meant to supplant Walter’s daydreams, but the reality in which they are grounded unbalances the whimsical moralizations that the script beats you over the head with.

There is most directly a problem with tone because, for instance, one minute we’re meant to feel the wonders of being alive during a ridiculous long-boarding sequence down an Icelandic mountain but then grave concern since out of nowhere Walter is next to a volcano that’s erupting and could flatten the entire town at the bottom. A lot of these moments try to have heart, but nothing really backs up the feelings imparted by Walter’s journey other than cleverly-placed and uplifting indie rock anthems—including the most careless use of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” I’ve ever seen, and there’s also that unbearable “Dirty Paws” song by Of Monsters and Men—that attempt to do the dramatic legwork the plot itself can’t carry. Perhaps the biggest problem is that there’s no conflict and no sense of urgency on his expedition. It’s as if his central problem is “I should go out and do things” and he simply and quite literally goes out and does them.

The film does look beautiful, taking extra care to glide across the vistas of the Nordic and Asian countries Walter finds himself in, but its grand scale sort of belies the significance of Walter’s personal story—featuring his angst over the death of his father and the wellbeing of his mother, played by Shirley MacLaine—as well. But the lesson here should be that the far-flung fantasies shouldn’t need to become reality for him to lead a fulfilling life, not the other way around. Ultimately the film may fail at saying anything meaningful from a humanist perspective, but it has a strangely strong pro-branding lean suggesting companies like E-Harmony can impart true friendship, Air Greenland can fulfill your unrealistic dreams, Papa John’s can be a symbol of life changing experiences, and Cinnabon is a proxy for ultimate catharsis.

Everything about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty wants you to believe that watching these characters fulfill their lives is also a fulfilling experience in itself, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In a movie with zero stakes, easy obstacles to overcome, and effortlessly getting the girl of your dreams there is nothing but emptiness. Anybody interested in conveniently feel-good nonsense like this should take notice – this movie is for you. All others not susceptible to such things should best steer clear.