Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
As new management threatens the livelihoods of those working at LIFE magazine, an idealistic day-dreamer from the photo department sets out on a quest to retrieve a missing negative touted to show the quintessence of life.
Ben Stiller, who also directs, stars as the titular Walter Mitty, while Kristen Wiig is his new colleague and hopeful love interest. Adam Scott is one of several young, bearded suits coming into to shake up the office, while Patton Oswald serves as Mitty’s eHarmony dating consultant. Sean Penn pops up in photos and voice-overs as Sean O’Connell, a talented and elusive globetrotting photographer.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is not so much to the viewer; he daydreams, imagines, and fantasizes. He is not the sad-sack, plagued stereotype too often seen; he’s a moderately successful, good-looking man with some wit and generosity, staying a good friend, brother, and son. He’s just never done anything.
So you can’t blame him when sometimes he wants to save a puppy from a burning building, or make a pretty woman swoon from tales of his adventures. Stiller as a director handles these rather regular tangents with some dexterity, seamlessly falling into this fantasy world only to abrupt snap back to reality, which usually involves something repeating Walter’s name over and over again.
Walter has never traveled. Dutifully working as negatives processor at LIFE Magazine in New York City, he finally seizes the opportunity, but only after finding the utmost motivation. He is partially spurred by the fact that he is missing a negative sent by a longtime colleague in the mysterious photographer Sean O’Connell. A hand-written message declares that negative 25 is a paragon of photojournalism, and the new young tycoons in charge, the ones who are working on the last print issue and will herald in an online LIFE, want the photo on the cover.
As people are getting laid-off all around, Walter’s only move is to seek out O’Connell and find this negative. Piecing together clues with the help of a new coworker for whom he has eyes (well, winks), Walter makes his way to Greenland.
While the job certainly is somewhat of an impetus, it’s more the woman. Cheryl Melhoff, played with warmth and authenticity by Kristen Wiig, is single like Walter, and he knows this because he found her on eHarmony. He fails to woo her from afar, but they get to know each other amid a time of turmoil at the company.
She is the reason that Walter takes a leap – and what a leap it is. While the dream diversions are typically ridiculous (one is even downright creepy), it’s Walter’s real life escapes that are most enchanting and beautiful, if not entirely odd. Gorgeously shot, Walter’s quest for the supposed perfect picture has him following O’Connell around the world, traversing Greenland, Iceland, and the mountains of Asia.
Sure, it plays out like a tourism video, especially what with some hip indie music underscoring some of the cooler scenes, but in a film that could so easily go off the rails everything stays focused and genuine despite its rather general meaning and borderline quirkiness.
Stiller is such a winning screen presence, and it’s from the endearing, thoughtful, comic beginning that you’re ready to travel anywhere around the world with him. While it’s not this imaginative powerhouse, and nothing especially mysterious (well, that desired photo might be), Walter Mitty has pride and purpose, and that’s special and may too inspire.
Should You See It?
Charming yet flawed, it is in fact rather beautiful (and better) on the big screen, and that’s where it should be seen.