When I first saw the trailer for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), I expected it to be one of the best movies of the year. It looked like a mature movie from Ben Stiller about a man getting out of his own fantasy and living life. That smells a little hackneyed, but it had a visual style that looked like it would fully realize the fantasy and the reality of Walter Mitty’s life, or lives. The best part of it was that it looked less like the zany Ben Stiller I knew from Zoolander (2001) or Dodgeball (2004) than a big budget version of Alexander Payne. Then the reviews (which I don’t read before I see the movie) started to come out and it wasn’t looking too good. I heard some critics speak of it dismissively with mention of distracting facial hair. I have no idea what movie they saw because The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was exactly what the trailer promised it would be.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is the negative (as in film) asset manager for LIFE magazine, which is transitioning to it’s new online home. Famous photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) has sent in his last film reel for very last issue of LIFE with a special photo for its cover. In it is “the quintessence of life”. And it’s lost. Walter has always been an elaborate fantasist, zoning out and imagining himself as the hero, lover, fighter he wants to be. The object of his affection, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) from accounts, inspires him to get up and go find the missing negative, tracking O’Connell across the world. Along the way, Walter experiences things more beautiful and poignant than anything he imagines.
Director Ben Stiller starts with a characteristic bit of awkward comedy as Walter struggles to summon the courage to send an electronic wink to Cheryl on eHarmony. Then, after a brief introduction to Walter’s imagination, the opening credit sequence rolls and the movie really begins. The dominant visual motif of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the work of LIFE magazine: beautiful photography. Stiller and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh will alter the scene graphically to incorporate Walter’s imagination or turn a plot point into a grand CGI piece. Usually it was done in a relatively subtle fashion that felt organic to the movie and the moment.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty will hold up over time better than the vast majority of films that came out this year. The whole film felt of a piece with a consistent visual and thematic style. It also has a story that is universal and timeless. Get out of your head, let go of the fantasy and start living your life. Happily, no one says as much with the sort of clunky dialogue one could almost guarantee in a lesser movie. Steve Conrad‘s script is also without (too many of) the comedic mannerisms that are popular in the Stiller or Adam McKay camps. Characters aren’t too stupid to be real. And the CGI is grand without being overwhelming.
There were a few moments towards the end that weren’t to my taste. I don’t think this is a perfect film. Adam Scott‘s transition manager is a bit too mean and obtuse, Kristen Wiig’s character isn’t particularly dynamic, Walter’s empowerment is a bit aggressive, the product placement is also too aggressive, but the vast majority of the film was very lovely. What occurs to me now is that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is adult without being raunchy. It’s a mature PG film. That should be rewarded.
I bought the soundtrack. I’ll let that speak for itself.
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