51st New York Film Festival Review: ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’

Directed by Ben Stiller
Written by Steve Conrad
Starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn

Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,’ the second film adaptation of James Thurber’s 1947 short story, ponders whether a life kept secret can be fulfilling.

Stiller’s Walter Mitty is a reserved “Life Magazine” employee who works in the bowels of the Time Inc. building developing photo negatives, many of them shot by globetrotting adventurer/photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). Walter’s adventures, meanwhile, take place only in his mind. He is frequently given to elaborate, exciting fantasies—which render him unresponsive and zoned out in public, leaving family and coworkers to wonder where his head is at.

Walter reaches a breaking point when two crises converge: a corporate takeover that will imminently move Life Magazine solely online, eliminating numerous jobs, and his increasingly frustrating unrequited crush on his coworker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). Too inhibited to talk to Cheryl in person, Walter tries to contact her over eHarmony instead, even though he sees her at work every day. But when a technical glitch prevents him from sending Cheryl a “wink,” Walter calls eHarmony for help. Todd, a jovial tech support operator (Patton Oswalt), advises Walter over the phone that, before reaching out to Cheryl, he should flesh out the currently empty “Been There, Done That” section of his profile, detailing some of his life experiences. (So far, Walter tells Todd, he has been to Phoenix. Also Nashville, but that was just the airport on the way to Phoenix.) And then Walter learns that the pitiless, condescending, and overly bearded head of the new corporate transition team (Adam Scott) intends to use a Sean O’Connell film slide that has gone missing on Walter’s watch as the final Life Magazine cover. So Walter runs off to Greenland in pursuit of Sean, hoping to recover the photograph before anyone knows it is missing, save his job, and flesh out the “Been There, Done That” section of his eHarmony profile.

One of the things that makes the film feel fresh is its contrarian assertion that imagination, however boundless and vivid, can be taken too far and relied upon too much, limiting the scope of a person’s real life. The film gradually demonstrates that Walter’s boundless imagination is the most counterproductive aspect of his psyche. In his fantasies, Walter sweeps Cheryl off her feet as a dashing, Hispanic-accented arctic explorer, and uses superhuman-strength to battle his bearded corporate overlord in the streets and along rooftops. But by settling for such fantasies, Walter prevents himself from, say, making a move on Cheryl, or standing up to his noxious new boss. His fantasy accomplishments preclude any real ones. Only by having actual experiences, as Todd suggest, can he learn to stop distancing himself from real life experience and make human connections.

From the beginning, “Walter Mitty” nimbly balances a contrast between Walter’s fantasies and the modest humanity of his ultimate goals. And even as Walter experiences more and more real adventures during his search for Sean—say, jumping out of a helicopter into shark-infested waters in Greenland or climbing a mountain in Afghanistan—they are still a means to humbler ends: respect at work, a sense of self-worth, a chance at love. The film mixes a visually outlandish mode of storytelling with a restrained, dignified character portrait.

Stiller’s Mitty is not given to frequent changes in facial expression or tone of voice. Yet that makes Walter’s moments of exhilaration all the more effective.  When Walter kicks his way free of a hungry shark and flops into a lifeboat gasping for breath, he pants “Oh my god, oh my god, that really happened,” a look of glassy-eyed shock plastered across his face. It is a far cry from the stoicism he wore up until then, both in his quiet moments at work and in his fantasies. Stiller’s selective use of excitement viscerally highlights Walter’s evolution from day-dreaming drone to life-embracing globetrotter—from restrictive fantasy and inhibition to real existence.

Stiller’s frequently calm countenance is more than counterbalanced by Stuart Dryburgh’s majestic camerawork. Dryburgh’s wide shots of Walter’s mountainous destinations—Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan—are expansive and breathtaking. And Dryburgh’s camera—for example, in a sidelong tracking shot of Walter skateboarding down an empty road hugging rolling green hills—is particularly adept at demonstrating Walter’s increasing comfort in his rugged and vast new surroundings.

Unfortunately, the film sometimes relies on well-worn plot mechanisms. At this point, five years removed from the financial crisis, the hostile workplace takeover feels like a lazy, done-to-death means of driving cinematic conflict. And Adam Scott’s corporate suit is a strawman villain, played without an ounce of shading or complexity.

In fact, most characters apart from Walter are thinly drawn. It is never quite clear why Cheryl, who is mainly devoid of distinctive character traits, is the object of such intense affection from Walter; she is more plot device than character. Oddly enough, Patton Oswalt’s Todd, with his good-natured but increasingly bizarre investment in Walter’s rapidly improving eHarmony profile, is the film’s second best character. This despite being a mere voice on Walter’s cell phone for most of the proceedings. Fortunately, Walter is the main show here, and his development is rich enough to carry the film.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a big leap forward for Mr. Stiller’s directorial career. His prior films, ranging from 2001’s ‘Zoolander’ to 2008’s ‘Tropic Thunder,’ tended toward broad (though often effective) comedy. Not since 1994’s ‘Reality Bites’ has he even attempted to tackle complex themes and emotions.

Walter Mitty” captures the often painful contrast between fantasy and actual accomplishment. Walter is a character with big dreams and bigger insecurities, and it is fascinating to watch him pull out of his head and join the real world.

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David Teich

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