The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Review: Lighthearted Wanderlust

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Ben Stiller’s latest directorial effort isn’t as thought-provoking as it hopes to be, but it still provides plenty of charm for the daydreamer in all of us.

Over the years, Stiller has proven himself to be a formidable force both in front of and behind the camera. Films like Tropic Thunder, and the now-classic Zoolander, have allowed him to flex his venerable comedic muscles as both a director and star. With The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Stiller pulls double duty once again. Here he makes a foray into slightly weightier territory with a story of reverie, adventure, and carpe diem. Not everything works, but it’s a beautiful and uplifting tale nonetheless.

Based upon the short story by James Thurber and a 1947 film of the same name, Walter Mitty tells the story of a man trapped in life’s daily routines. The plot has been modernized to fit our current times, with themes of corporate downsizing and the changing nature of journalism. Walter (Stiller) is an employee at Life Magazine, working in the photo labs to process the negatives for every issue. On his birthday, he learns the company is changing over to a purely online format and that many of the staff will be let go. The last print issue is to be released in two weeks, but the negative that’s to be used for the cover photo has gone missing.

Walter is a very introverted character who’s never really strayed from the beaten path. He suffers from chronic daydreams, where he’s able to live out his wildest fantasies without ever leaving the comforts of his banal life. These sequences are great fun to watch, making excellent use of CGI and the endless possibilities of human imagination. One, in particular, references the reverse aging disease in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to hilarious effect. As the film progresses, however, Walter learns to rely less and less on these visions, and to have a more active role in the world around him.

Stiller plays Walter with an understated humility that’s easy to empathize with. We feel for Walter as he sits back and takes a beating from life, and root for him as he steps outside his comfort zone. The rest of the cast is rounded out by several talented actors who each turn in great performances. Kristen Wiig takes on the part of the love interest as the kind and supportive Cheryl. Sean Penn, in a smaller role, plays Sean O’Connell, the astute, worldly photographer who shot the now-missing cover image. The always endearing Shirley MacLaine plays Walter’s intuitive mother. Finally, Patton Oswald has an amusing role as an eHarmony service member who continually tries to follow up on Walter’s complaints.

Perhaps the film’s best quality, though, is its visual splendor. Walter’s journey to find the missing photo takes him to the seas of Greenland, a volcano in Iceland, and even the Himalayas. All of this is gorgeously brought to life by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, who expertly evokes the film’s message of expanding your horizons. These scenes, along with Walter’s daydreams, make for one visually arresting movie.

Unfortunately, the film gets too bogged down by this message to have a real impact. Living life to the fullest isn’t exactly a new concept, and we’re offered little more to walk away with when we leave the theater. Additionally, all of the characters are depicted as stock archetypes. Sometimes this works, as is the case with Walter, Cheryl, and Sean. In other instances, such as Adam Scott’s turn as an overbearingly douchey corporate manager, it feels very thoughtless.

Still, it’s hard to truly dislike a movie with this positive of a message. Walter Mitty is a captivating and relatable journey, even with it’s flaws. I doubt this film will win any major awards this season–except, possibly, for cinematography–but it will definitely warm your heart. Grade: B+

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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