Movie Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
There’s a classic scene in the 2001 movie “Ghost World” relevant to Ben Stiller’s dire “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
In the earlier film, young Enid Coleslaw wants to get Seymour, an older, blues-78s obsessive, out of the house. Not knowing any better, she takes him to a club to see some “authentic” blues. The band turns out to be a loud, horrible electric outfit called Blueshammer, a term that has become common coin in music-nerd circles to describe the most cliched, dull rock.
The point is this: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” directed by Stiller from a script by Steven Conrad, bears roughly the same relationship to the 1939 James Thurber story about a man who escapes his dreary life through daydreams as Blueshammer does to Robert Johnson or Charlie Patton.
By the time the end credits roll, one wants to demand the movie step into the alley and settle this the old-fashioned way.
The 2013 Walter Mitty (Stiller) is a photo processor at Life magazine. (Life ended in 2000, so one guesses it’s supposed to be set then or perhaps we are in the realm of pure fable or something.) He lives largely in his own head, fantasizing about adventures that others have, especially globe-trotting photographer Sean O’Connell (a rugged-looking Sean Penn).
He is also distracted by Cheryl (a nicely toned-down Kristen Wiig), a single mom he cannot quite get past the “hi, how are you?” stage with. And it doesn’t help that Life is being taken over and turned from print to Web-only by an executive team led by a towel-snapping bro (Adam Scott, sporting one of the gnarliest let’s-hope-it’s-fake beards ever on screen).
So far, so … good, more or less. Twee, but reasonably in line with the movie’s title. The fantasy bits recall Michel Gondry’s fantasias, while some framing and character bits (Mitty, in black-frame glasses and short dress shirt, balancing his checkbook by hand, bold colors) feel like off-brand Wes Anderson.
Except when a negative of O’Connell’s goes missing, a picture of “the essence of life,” Mitty decides to live the life (Life?) about which he has always fantasized. By the time he is running out of his office in slow motion, bits of Life magazine’s motto emblazoned on the screen, Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” blaring (“To see things thousands of miles away” BOOM “things hidden behind walls and within rooms,” “WOOOOAHHH!”), we are well out of Thurber and into virtually every cliche of contemporary earnest filmmaking.
And so we are off, to Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan, Mitty grabbing life by the horns and discovering himself.
Or rediscovering, as it turns out.
Stiller’s vanity as an actor is, at this point, well established. (Recall the scene in “Meet the Parents,” where Stiller, playing a schlubby character, has to put on a Speedo. Stiller, shirtless, walks on screen with a mystifying six-pack, an abdomen that makes no sense given his character, so distracting that one thinks it’s the set-up for a joke. But no, Stiller is just perfectly fit for no reason.)
So it’s not too surprising that his Walter Mitty must secretly be a former teen skater, capable of doing tricks and almost flying down a hill. This is Mitty as emotionally bruised hipster who has been knocked around a bit, not as a quietly desperate, distracted man. Thurber’s story is about secret longings; this movie reveals them all.
It’s by far Stiller’s most technically accomplished film, and some of location scenes are gorgeous, a few gags funny here and there. Walter’s mother (Shirley MacLaine), sister (Kathryn Hahn) and, uh, an eHarmony call-center employee (Patton Oswalt) are all solid. But this isn’t Walter Mitty. It’s X-treme Mitty. It’s Mittyhammer.
And what is perhaps most striking is that Mittyhammer is exactly the sort of treacly eye-roller that would have been mocked by a young comedian named Ben Stiller on his MTV show back in the Clinton administration. Whatever happened to that guy?