The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a charming, relatable and flawed film romanticising the virtues of escaping the tedium of reality with a hop, skip and a jump.
What Daydreams May Come by Dave O’Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Based on a short story of the same name by James Thurber, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is director Ben Stiller’s fifth directorial outing that feels equal parts liberated and hindered by the 2,000 words on which it’s loosely based. With little more than a strong core concept from the 1939 penned short, Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad conjure a narrative that frequently creaks and folds under the weight of a feature length running time. For the most part, the storytelling is charming but the story itself can sometimes be anaemic and as fleeting as the daydreams that punctuate the narrative.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a mild-mannered man who eschews the humdrum of reality by dipping in and out of adventurous daydreams. When the negative for an important photo from photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) goes missing, he embarks on a rescue mission which forces him to live in the world that exists outside of his imagination. Spurred on by work colleague crush Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), his journey takes him to Greenland, Iceland and the slopes of the Himalayas.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens with the titular character pondering whether to send a virtual wink on eHarmony. This seemingly arbitrary decision is a perfectly effective and succinct introduction to the introvert, reticent and lonely Walter. Periodically retreating into the comfort of his imagination, Walter’s daydreams allow him to shed the shackles of social anxiety and prove to be real highpoints of the film; fun, adventurous and beautifully realised. The opening third of the film is a touching and delicate commentary on isolation and the inherent need for human connection. It’s a visually engaging film from start to finish, the camera work is strikingly unique and Stiller seamlessly integrates live action stunt work with assured visual effects throughout.
For a film so rich in imagination and fervour, it’s a real shame that the film takes a nosedive in the final third that it never really recovers from. Perhaps inevitably, Walter’s road trip to Iceland proves too hard an act to follow; the awe-inspiring landscape, the colourful characters and the breakneck pace of the film. The cliché-riddled characters from Walter’s real life are more prominent on his return to New York. From Walter’s ‘whacky’ and whimsical sister, Odessa (a terribly underutilised Kathryn Hahn), to bully boss Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), the supporting characters are trite and frankly quite dull. It just feels overly self-centered, a Ben Stiller vanity project, and while I had a sense of this going in, the papier-mâché thin characters detract from an otherwise competently conceived film.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of the film will be rooted in your ability to take as many Mittyesque leaps in logic and faith as the titular daydreamer. The film seems to run out of ideas in a way which almost seems predictable considering the scant source material. It feels overly self-congratulatory coupled with one too many botched contrivances. The biggest problem with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is that it hits such highs earlier in the movie that the lows later on are more apparent and jarring – the writing becomes schmalzy and clichéd, a fact which is magnified by the cardboard cutout characters. It feels like a series of beautifully conceived vignettes as opposed to a cohesive narrative, and if you can forgive a terribly weak final third, it’s a really nice film.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is released on 26th December 2013 in the UK