THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY
A movie that tells us to embrace life and adventure, but involves a guy more or less just doing his job, and talking to a woman for once (mostly about his job). This may be the point, but it doesn't come off as a particularly interesting point the way it's made, and the dream sequences and brilliant landscape photography that accompany this too-simple, largely characterless story fail to illustrate or edify it in any deep way, although occasionally they do thrill in their own right.
Directed by Ben Stiller
Written by Steve Conrad (based on the short story by James Thurber)
With Ben Stiller (Walter Mitty), Kristen Wiig (Cheryl Melhoff), Sean Penn (Sean O'Connell), and Shirley Maclaine (
Spoiler alert: moderate
"Remember when this used to be an insurance company?"
"Yeah, my mom worked here."
There's a really weird thing about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, that I want to get out of the way first: it's got a fetish for facial hair to a degree that I don't know if I've ever seen in any other film.
In Ben Stiller's vision, beards first appear to signal evil, but this is not the case. Beards equate to a kind of morally neutral alpha masculinity, aggression to be used for good or ill depending upon the beard's wearer, and they either grant or represent the power to push people around like a sarcastic chimpanzee troop leader.
Much like Will Riker or Ben Sisko, not until you've grown your beard can you expect to be taken seriously. This is the story of Walter Mitty putting away the razor and getting down to some serious hormone-mediated hirsutism. And he looks great.
"My head is an animal"?—ohh, I get it.
By contrast, no clean-shaven male can claim the full rights of manhood this movie; they are physical weaklings and moral cowards, pawns of the bearded cabal, often overweight, implied to be lacking in the necessary testosterone to put a really thick mat of fur on their faces. This means, also, that no woman could be taken seriously in the world of Walter Mitty, if any woman were really in this movie to speak of in the first place; most of Kristen Wiig's scenes take place within the daylight hallucinations of our titular schizophrenic. During the few scenes where her character does exist in physical reality, Walter invents curiously sexless fantasies involving her—this is, mind you, before he has stopped shaving—rather than doing something crazy like listen to her.
Nah, this movie's not really sexist, at least not in any special way. True, it doesn't have any fully-formed female characters, but it also doesn't really have any characters other than its lead, and that's kind of pushing it (he liked to skateboard, once; he worked at a fast food restaurant; what else do you need?). And, inasmuch as Walter Mitty is focused on a particular, in this case male, protagonist, who begins with no more than a foothold of existence in the world outside his imagination, it's practically unavoidable that the movie's viewpoint winds up both overwhelmingly masculine and borderline solipsistic. In fact, it's probably more of a feature than a flaw.
So it's not The Secret Life of Cheryl Melhoff, and that's fine. Its sin is greater than that. Ben Stiller's and Steve Conrad's imaginations just aren't quite vast enough to support the vastness of their ambition, which is to explain to us, the benighted people, within the confines of a single film, the purpose of life. They do try, bless 'em, and the results are more mixed than they are bad, although by the definition of "mixed," "bad" is gonna be in there too.
The plot of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is pretty threadbare. In sum, Walter Mitty needs to find this guy so he can get a thing, so he goes on a trip to go get it; that is the excuse for the events of the film.
Walter needs an excuse, because, although he is a man with no passions, few connections in life, and fewer prospects, he wishes he weren't. He craves adventure and excitement, without knowing where to begin. He is, in other words, the real Everyman.
To elaborate, although the details are only kind of important, he works at Life magazine, on the eve of their reorganization as an online-only publication. By zoning out whenever he's spoken to, as if he forgot to take his medication that day, Walter draws the ire of the higher-ranking sociopath (bearded? you bet) whose job it is to Manage the Direction of the Transition, and whose evil is far too personal and overt to accurately represent the banal abomination of corporate layoffs.
(Walter Mitty can be profoundly out of touch at times. For example, when Mitty says, with naught but a shrug, that he'll "Get a new job," or when he puts on his online resume some of his accomplishments in the film, which make for cool adventure set-pieces, but aren't exactly job skills such as are generally understood. That is, unless proven experience in running, biking, and skateboarding down an Icelandic mountain road is exactly what 21st century employers have been looking for, which would explain why no one in America has been hired for a permanent job in the past five years.)
Walter's job at Life, for the moment, is to liaise between the magazine and its best photographer, Sean O'Connell. He's a hard-living, world-traveling diva, who does not carry a satellite phone, and takes pictures of some of the shit he sees when he's on his corporate-sponsored extreme vacations. (Although he only does so if—as we eventually learn, in Mitty's most disgusting turn—he feels like it; otherwise, he doesn't let the camera "distract" him from the "moment." O'Connell is nonetheless a highly respected professional.)
O'Connell has sent a message saying that he's taken the photograph that represents the "quintessence" of Life; the photograph that, in his opinion, is the only image worthy of the magazine's final print cover. But the photo, which should be with the message, isn't there. Thus, it's up to Walter to track O'Connell down and sanction him with extreme prejudice, or at least to find the guy and get this quintessential photo, this "negative 25," or else ruin perfectly good clothes and spend of a lot of his own money trying.
We eventually do see this photo, incidentally. Whether the moment works for you or not may simply be a matter of personal taste, but all it does is compound the stupid plot contrivance (Mitty's second most disgusting turn) that gets Walter face to face with O'Connell in the first place. (I don't think saying that this does happen counts as a severe spoiler.)
That contrivance was my final break with Walter Mitty, but none of the film up to that point, with an exception here and exception there, ever quite lived up to my expectations. Let me explain, then, what I did expect.
When the first Mitty trailer hit back when, a wordless montage set to Of Monsters and Men's "Dirty Paws," I got my hopes up that it might be a mostly silent movie about a guy with a crush on a cute gal, daydreaming some crazy shit because his boring life didn't offer anything half as interesting as his imagination, with the film structured around his daydreams, and his daydreams structured around an appropriate selection of pop songs; essentially, Fantasia For Losers.
Well, I never actually thought it would be that, but that model is not altogether alien to what we do get. And it definitely shows that Stiller, like a lot of directors, does not understand how to edit a montage to a pop song. It's a difficult thing to do, because a pop song—unlike a piece of original score or even existing instrumental music—has its own life, its own story, and almost always its own climax, so you can't just go cutting it willie-nillie, like they so improperly do with David Bowie's "Space Oddity" here.
Which, I'll point out, they call "Major Tom," twice. And which they—apparently—fail to grasp that although, yes, it is about bravery and exploration, it is also about its protagonist dying in the vacuum of space and never returning to his family. I'm just saying, that's what happens in "Space Oddity," and you'd think that (in this comedy) this bit of irony may have been brought up, particularly since it's such a very literal song.
I'm also saying not all of these montages work, although one, inscribing the very backgrounds with the text of Life's motto, the thematic core of the film and a more-or-less effective one, is as perfect as the rest of the movie needed to be in order for it to do what Stiller clearly so very much wanted it to do.
What I did fully expect from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a movie that took its Everyman on an Adventure. It does that, kind of, by having him first go to Greenland, part of Denmark, and Iceland—that is, two rich Western nations filled with white people—but these scenes do have an energy and urgency to them that is, unfortunately, ultimately frittered away, because Walter goes back to America and waits for more plot to happen to him before he can get back on his world tour.
...I don't want to land in New York City...
When plot does finally happen, he flies to Afghanistan and hikes into the high Himalayas, which no doubt would come off as quite dangerous and—yes!—very adventurous, if it didn't happen in montage played entirely for very, very mild laughs.
But it is a most handsome montage. I can't shit on that. I can't shit on how this movie looks at all. It's exceedingly pretty; in a movie about a missing photograph, cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (of nothing in particular that would make you think he was a good fit for this movie, but is) manages to make this movie look like a roll of glossy and important magazine photographs, unspooled and put through a projector. And, however much this might be damning Walter Mitty with faint praise, the stills accompanying the ending credits form one of the best parts of the movie.
This is way more quintessential than anything in negative 25, by the way.
I may, too, have expected it to be funnier. There are many great romances about losers deciding to stop losing for a change, but the one from which I took the title for this review, and which I am convinced Walter Mitty is deliberately evoking by its casting of Shirley Maclaine (if not by its very subject matter), was frankly not that funny either. But in The Apartment, that was a tonal choice; its dialogue nonetheless had a bite to it, a writerly polish to it as well perhaps, but bite all the same.
Mitty, however, can be funny by turns, but when it comes to our principals, it's largely Ben Stiller awkwarding at Kristen Wiig and Kristen Wiig returning the favor. It comes off almost less as social anxiety than it does English as a second language (and that's before we ever leave New York). It tries so hard to be true that it goes out the other side into parody, but not the especially amusing kind.
And I expected, finally, to be moved and edified by the awakening of Walter Mitty. At the risk of getting personal, I went to go see Walter Mitty by myself, having just had a falling out—or, if not that, then a distancing—between about the only real friend I've got left, and romantically I've been about as successful as Walter before he decided to tell the whole Internet dating world he fought a shark in a volcano—even though we are, I understand, both really, really, really ridiculously good-looking. And work hasn't been great for me lately either. My point is, if anyone was going to be vulnerable to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty's charms, it was going to be this guy, right here.
So if Mitty couldn't get to me, why should it get to you? And since getting to you is the goal of the movie, doesn't that make it—however qualified—a failure?
Hey, maybe I just need a vacation. Iceland looks really nice.