VOD film review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Selina Pearson | On 06, May 2014
Director: Ben Stiller
Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn, Patton Oswalt
There are many deep and meaningful questions in life. What is my purpose? Why am I here? Should I go backpacking around the world to find myself? Can Kristen Wiig sing? Can Ben Stiller skateboard? What sort of biscuits shall I eat next?
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty answers all of these questions. Some of these questions. Actually, none of these questions. But then, you didn’t expect to find the meaning of life at the bottom of a Ben Stiller film, did you?
Walter Mitty (Stiller) is the negative asset manager at Life Magazine (resurrected by the magic of narrative cinema). He is a shy worker bee who spends much of his time daydreaming. He fantasises in Scrubs-esque asides about rescuing three-legged dogs from burning buildings and romancing his co-worker, Cheryl Melhoff (Wiig).
Walter is forced to pull his head out of the sand, though, when Life Magazine is acquired by another company, the transition being fronted by a trio of younglings with bad beards. (The mother brain for this gestalt entity seems to be Ted (Scott), although the three of them function poorly without each other.) The acquisition heralds the dreaded switch to an online-only publication. Meanwhile, wandering technophobe photographer Sean O’Connell (Penn) has sent a photo of what he has deemed to be the quintessence of Life Magazine, along with a telegram to the management that this should be the cover of the landmark final print edition. The strip of negatives ends up in Mitty’s office but that quintessential image is missing, prompting Walter to run after it.
The film rather charmingly sits at the intersect between tangible old media and shiny new media, exemplified by O’Connell’s refusal to carry a phone and his insistence on continued shooting on film. Walter, on the other hand, maintains connection throughout his journey via mobile phone calls from Tod (an enthusiastic Patton Oswalt) at eHarmony, the internet dating agency .
It may sound like it, but Walter Mitty is far from being the irritating tourist porn of some insufferable person trying to “find themselves”. Yes, his quest across the continents with a briefcase – and a Stretch Armstrong – forces him out of his comfort zone. But it’s not just about bulking up his internet dating profile; it forces him out of his fantasies. Reality, he discovers, is much more tangible, deep, rich and varied than imagination.
The travel aspect of the film also manages to be beautiful without being smug. (Keen viewers will notice that Iceland doubles for Greenland and the Himalayas.) Most importantly, the script manages to be funny but restrained, in a very un-Stiller manner. Kristen Wiig is underused – sadly, she’s more of a trophy than a fully fleshed-out character. (Imaginary Cheryl gets Wiig’s best as she plays Bowie’s Space Oddity while Mitty is trying to will himself to jump onto a helicopter with a drunk pilot.)
Throughout, the movie has the discipline to stick to its plot; its fantastical asides allow it to go nuts without impacting on the life-affirming-lite message of the film. Charming, well-shot and funny, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty deserves more attention.