In a colorless and unremarkable New York apartment, the shy, anonymous Walter Mitty stares at the eHarmony dating page of his co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). Debating whether or not to make the online first move, Walter eventually daydreams about a spectacular manner in which to impress her. But back in reality, the question remains: can the timid man send the social networking equivalent of a hello to the girl he has a crush on? If he does have the chutzpah to do so, will the complexities of life and fate manage to interfere? Will Walter be able to seize the day and “just do it” like Nike might have asserted him to do a few decades ago? (Bear with me.)
While there’s no Nike per se in this ambitious movie, there’s certainly no shortage of product placement. And though the thinly concealed advertising is mildly distracting, it’s the least of the movie’s problems. Yet this presence of branding is also thematically fitting considering “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” does its best to resemble an affected carpe diem commercial slogan at all times.
Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, the actor plays the titular Walter Mitty, a negative asset manager at LIFE magazine (he develops pictures for the company known for its iconic photography). Predicaments hit Walter’s life early when the company changes management and is downscaled from print magazine to online entity—the corporate malevolence involved is realized by an obnoxious, one-note villain played by Adam Scott (instead of an evil moustache, he has a sinister and preposterous-looking beard). How will the transition period affect Walter’s job, and more importantly, how will it affect Walter’s chances of growing a pair and finally asking Cheryl out on a date? When Walter contemplates these ideas, he zones out, which means escaping into his imagination, a world wherein he is much more exciting, brave and courageous than he could ever be in reality. Walter is a daydreamer, and he wants his existence to be writ large at all times, but stuck in life’s first gear he can only fantasize about an exciting life—one where adventures occur often and he and Cheryl are together.
Crisis number two, the veritable Macguffin-like plot of the movie hits quickly. Celebrated LIFE photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) has sent Walter the evidently spectacular and life-changing photo meant to grace the final cover of the magazine. However, there’s one problem: the negative Sean sent to Walter is missing, and if evil beardo boss finds out, it’s going to cost Walter his already uncertain job. And so with the assistance of Cheryl, whom he timidly woos, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” transforms into a clue-laden action-adventure mystery: Walter Mitty traverses the globe attempting to track down the photographer (an off-the-grid man he has never met, but corresponds with often) in hopes of finding this crucial photo.
Along the journey, to Greenland, Iceland and the Himalayas, we watch the formerly stiff and apprehensive Walter incredulously transform from indistinctive, unremarkable office drone to a dynamic man who is finally living out all his wildest dreams and aspirations (which also means sporting facial hair and more casual clothes). Walter finally comes alive. And while that’s all well and good, the voyage (and certainly the destination) is often cliché-riddled, hamfisted and phony. ‘Walter Mitty’ rarely hits its mark with any nuance. The movie aims to be sweet, but its execution is syrupy. The picture endeavors to be earnest and heartfelt, but emerges as corny.
In fact, as ‘Walter Mitty’ ascends towards its climax, it becomes like a series of would-be anthemic and life-affirming music video montages that ring either silly, hokey or false (and occasionally even unintentionally funny). Dialing up Arcade Fire, Of Monsters and Men, and The Lumineers (and practically every other contemporary band you can think of that writes rousing, lighter-raising pop hymns), the two-thirds mark of the movie is essentially defined by sequences serving as launch pads for yet another life affirming music moment (the score by Theodore Shapiro also employs the help of autumnal indie pop troubadour Jose Gonzalez to mildly better effect).
There are a couple of times when Stiller’s superficial feel-goodery transcends the ridiculous and transforms into something genuinely uplifting, inspirational and possibly even a little soulful (one moment thanks to a David Bowie song that does a lot of the emotional heavy lifting), but more often than not, all of the movie’s attempts at those same sentiments feels trite or falls flat. While the set piece-like daydreaming sequences are frequently technically dazzling with plenty of action and CGI effects, they fail to provide the movie with anything other than empty dynamism and spelling out, once again and in big, bold colors, how much Walter Mitty yearns for a more remarkable life (one daydream that spoofs "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" also seems tonally out of place and more like a rejected sketch comedy skit). And it’s spelled out over and over again, in not-so-subtle slogans that orbit around the character in hopes that they’ll get noticed, in dialogue (“you know that David Bowie song is actually about being courageous and brave”) and ostentatious high-concept daydreams.
It’s perhaps important to note that there’s nothing wrong with sentimentality and earnestness. In fact, in this day and age it’s often unfairly maligned, and can be tremendously refreshing when crafted well, but Stiller’s version of these notes are never as convincingly humanistic and heartwarming as he desperately wants them to sound. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is nothing if not sincere. Passion is not something the movie is lacking. It is a well-paced and an engaging watch despite how silly it becomes at times, but that doesn’t belie the fact that its efforts at crowd-pleasing often come across as awfully strained. Part escapist action-adventure, part would-be exhilarating quest of self-discovery, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” isn’t so much a mess because it wants to be everything at once, but because it employs hackneyed and mawkish methods to achieve a false sense of joyfulness.
Co-starring Kathryn Hahn and Shirley MacLaine as Walter’s sister and mother, plus Patton Oswalt as a disembodied eHarmony customer service voice that’s constantly calling Walter and therefore continuously reminding the audience of Walter’s growth (the dialogue is unfortunately that artless), ‘Walter Mitty’ boasts a strong cast, but one misused by a pedestrian script that embraces clichés and places conventional, groan-worthy conclusions at the end of each storyline shared by Walter and every major character he’s met.
Bearing these myriad problems in mind, “Walter Mitty’ is not a terrible movie per se, but it is largely unsophisticated and prosaic in most of its sentiments. Extremely ambitious in scope—the movie takes on several genres at once, including fantasy, romantic comedy, action, adventure and more—“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” does have good intentions, but the road here is often paved with cloying misdirection. [C-]
This review originally ran during the 2013 New York Film Festival.