The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty

  • Movie Review
  • Friday, 27 Dec 2013

Starring : Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Adam Scott, Shirley MacLaine

Director : Ben Stiller

Release Date : 25 Dec 2013

THERE’S something poignant about watching The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty – a film that privileges the experiencing of life over merely making images of it – right after a multitude of cinema advertisements of digital cameras and smartphones.

Perhaps that is why the movie, despite its obviousness and rather blatant nostalgia, works. It speaks to that part of us that feels, despite all the access and connectivity of modern technology, that we may in fact be more isolated than ever.

While adapted from a 1939 short story by James Thurber, this Ben Stiller-directed vehicle doesn’t have very much in common with the original, except for the basic premise of a colourless man who has grand, heroic daydreams to escape from his mundane life.

Walter Mitty (Stiller) is a photo archivist at Life magazine, which is about to cease publication and go digital . In his daydreams, he may be a ll dashing and heroic, but in real life, he can’t even muster up the courage to talk to Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a co-worker he wants to ask out.

Facing possible retrenchment, Walter is put in charge of developing a picture for the very last cover of the magazine, taken by the mysterious and adventurous photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). 

When the negative of the photo is found missing, Walter is given an ultimatum by the corporate-types taking over the magazine – find it, or lose his job.

And so he embarks on an impetuous journey on O’Connell’s trail, which leads him to Iceland, Greenland and Afghanistan, not to mention on a series of amazing and often hilarious adventures.

One of the movie’s biggest strengths is its reverence for objects and experiences that are increasingly becoming things of the past. Using Life, so well-known for its photography of iconic moments, as an example of that is an inspired move – not only does it give the movie its thematic resonance, it also allows the magazine and its various cover pictures to be used for visual impact.

On that vein, the film is simply lovely to watch, with sweeping shots of gorgeous locales contrasted with tiny, delightful details. Coupled with a soundtrack that is absolutely spot-on (featuring, among others, David Bowie, Of Monsters And Men and Jack Johnson), it is difficult not to get swept away with the many feelgood moments.

As for Stiller, I was initially sceptical of him being able to pull this role off, but this version of the character suits him perfectly.

As the titular character, Stiller spends a lot of screentime on his own, and it is to his credit that he keeps us engaged throughout.

Wiig, meanwhile, is a great foil for him, with her naturalistic style and flair for comedy.

The movie also boasts a strong supporting cast, including Patton Oswalt in a neat cameo and Penn in a small, but pivotal role that he executes with style.

The actors playing the many characters Walter comes across on his journey are also excellent, and bring much of the life to his story.

Ironically, where the movie stumbles is in the very segments that it should soar: Walter’s daydreams.

While Stiller playing a Rocky-type, or spoofing The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button with Wiig are certainly funny in their own right, the segments are oddly jarring within the larger context, seemingly more suited to a Tropic Thunder-style movie.

Hence, while the movie is supposedly about a man who learns that real life can be more fulfilling than his daydreams, the stronger story is really about our obsession with engineering and documenting experiences, rather than actually experiencing them – and when Walter finally meets O’Connell in a very affecting scene, this is the message that hits us.

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is not without its flaws, and there are certainly moments when the more maudlin or predictable bits threaten to overwhelm the story.

Yet, there is a sweetness at the heart of it that makes you want to go out, grab life by the hand and set off on an adventure too – and perhaps, who knows, without a smartphone camera in tow.

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