BLOGS

Movies Without Pity
<i>The Secret Life of Walter Mitty</i>: Best Kept a Secret

The curse of specializing in comedy -- either in front of or behind the camera -- is that at a certain point, you kind of want to be taken seriously. And while that understandable motivation is how we wind up with such richly dramatic career left turns as Woody Allen's Manhattan, Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love and Sarah Silverman in Take This Waltz, it also results in misguided botches like Robert Benigni's Life is Beautiful, Adam Sandler in Reign Over Me and Tina Fey in Admission. Be prepared to add The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the latest directorial effort from Ben Stiller, to that list.

It should be noted that Stiller is no stranger to drama as an actor at least, having taken the occasional break from broad comedies like Mystery Men and the Night at the Museum franchise to headline such smaller films as Permanent Midnight and Greenberg. As a director, though, his modest filmography is dominated by comedies, from his feature filmmaking debut Reality Bites (which, to be fair, does have some dramatic elements, though the film's oh-so-'90s mise en scène now renders much of it unintentionally hilarious) to his super-sized action movie spoof, Tropic Thunder. And for its first thirty minutes, Walter Mitty -- an adaptation of the short story (and high school English class staple) by James Thurber that had been kicking around Hollywood for years before falling into Stiller's lap -- is very much in the vein of those movies, as our nebbishy hero Walter (played by Stiller) daydreams himself into a series of outlandish scenarios. Most of these fantasies revolve around him impressing the cute co-worker he has a crush on, single mom Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), by, for example, taking on the persona of a rugged mountain man and/or humiliating his smug new boss Ted (Adam Scott), often through super heroic feats of strength. Inevitably, though, he's shaken out of these reveries and returns to his humdrum life as a quiet, unassuming photo archivist at Life magazine… a groan-inducing job designation that is just one of the movie's many, many on-the-nose touches.

Though broader in its comic tone that Thurber's original story, this section of the movie bears the closest resemblance to the source material and appears to be setting the stage for a predictable, but pleasant-enough "being yourself is better than being someone else" fable. But then Stiller decides to scale the diving tower ladder to the high-dive and leap off into the unknown… an admirable artistic choice if it had worked. Though a series of contrived incidents, Walter ends up hopping a plane to Greenland in order to track down an important photo sent in by Life's top freelance photojournalist (Sean Penn) and then a helicopter to a fishing boat that served as his last known location. It's in the helicopter scene specifically, which is scored to the otherworldly sounds of David Bowie's "Space Oddity," that Stiller-as-director unleashes the dramatic conceit that will drive the rest of the movie: after devoting so much time to escaping from dull reality into elaborate fantasy, Mitty finally gets to live out a grand real-life adventure. His pursuit of Penn -- who is essentially playing the human equivalent of a spirit animal -- takes him from that fishing trawler on a journey that includes stops in Iceland and Afghanistan (Stiller shot a number of these sequences on location and the resulting footage is often spectacular.) It's a globetrotting adventure that's more fantastical than anything he could dream up.

At least, that would seem to be the point if I believed a single thing that happened in the second half of the movie. Watching it though, the unlikely experiences that Walter had, not to mention the elaborate plot machinations required to take him from place-to-place, came across to me as the stuff of pure fantasy. The details of Mitty's journey are so improbable -- and, in some cases, so profoundly stupid -- it doesn't even work on the level of one of those "strange, but true" stories where reality outdoes fiction. (In practice, it feels more like a screenwriter's calculated attempt to invent a "strange, but true" story.) Numerous times throughout the movie, I found myself wondering "We're not really supposed to think this is happening, are we?" and waiting for that moment where Walter snaps back to the real world, a feeling heightened by a series of dreamlike directorial flourishes on Stiller's part. But no… we seem to be expected to accept this series of improbable events at face value and, more improbably still, find meaning and inspiration in them, as well as Walter's personal transformation from a wallflower into a… um, a slightly more self-confident wallflower? Honestly, the only meaning I took away from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is that it makes Simple Jack look like Citizen Kane.

Get showtimes and tickets for this movie from Fandango.

Keep up with Movies Without Pity on Facebook and Tumblr

Think you've got game? Prove it! Check out Games Without Pity, our new area featuring trivia, puzzle, card, strategy, action and word games -- all free to play and guaranteed to help pass the time until your next show starts.

Comments

SHARE THE SNARK

X

Get the most of your experience.
Share the Snark!

See content relevant to you based on what your friends are reading and watching.

Share your activity with your friends to Facebook's News Feed, Timeline and Ticker.

Stay in Control: Delete any item from your activity that you choose not to share.

MOST RECENT POSTS

BLOG ARCHIVES

Movies Without Pity

March 2014

16 ENTRIES

February 2014

22 ENTRIES

January 2014

21 ENTRIES

December 2013

25 ENTRIES

November 2013

21 ENTRIES

October 2013

26 ENTRIES

September 2013

16 ENTRIES

August 2013

22 ENTRIES

July 2013

22 ENTRIES

June 2013

21 ENTRIES

May 2013

22 ENTRIES

April 2013

19 ENTRIES

March 2013

28 ENTRIES

February 2013

16 ENTRIES

January 2013

16 ENTRIES

December 2012

21 ENTRIES

November 2012

19 ENTRIES

October 2012

20 ENTRIES

September 2012

19 ENTRIES

August 2012

19 ENTRIES

July 2012

17 ENTRIES

June 2012

24 ENTRIES

May 2012

21 ENTRIES

April 2012

22 ENTRIES

March 2012

26 ENTRIES

February 2012

25 ENTRIES

January 2012

25 ENTRIES

The Latest Activity On TwOP