Based on the James Thurbers’ famous short story of the same name, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty tells the tale of a man who escapes the mundanity of his existence through adventurous and heroic daydreams. This iteration, directed by and starring Ben Stiller, places Mitty as an introverted and socially awkward worker at LIFE Magazine, where he is set apart from any of the media glamour in a monochrome basement handling negatives and photographs. Derided by his snazzier colleagues, Mitty secretly yearns for his co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), but can only muster the courage to talk to her in the fantastical daydreams he is prone to lapse into. When the cover shot for the final printissue of LIFE goes missing, he sets out on an extraordinary journey to track it down.
This version of the Walter Mitty story has apparently been on the cards for the past two decades; at one point Spielberg was set to direct with the post-Mask Jim Carrey in the title role. Since then several big names have been almost been Mitty, including Mike Myers, Owen Wilson, and Sacha Baron Cohen. But the role eventually found its way to Stiller, who has used the opportunity to step up his game as both actor and director. There’s a movement away from the straight up comedy we associate with Stiller, instead The Secret Life of Walter Mitty plays out as a comic-drama, dealing with existential themes, and deeply embedded with a life-affirming message.
Mitty is directionless, and at times helpless, seemingly equipped with an integrity but devoid of any ability to enact his will. He is a kind of human flotsam that uses his imagination as a surrogate space to live out his desires. The LIFE magazine motto appears throughout the film as a haunting reminder of his unlived life: ‘To see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to, that is the purpose of life’. Unfortunately for what is essentially a one character piece, Mitty is not particularly easy to attach to – a problem that stems from the fact that he is not particularly believable. Like the negatives he processes he is black and white, and while the most interesting characters tend to occupy the grey area between, Mitty only exists at the extremes. His oscillation between the implausibly inept and the astonishingly adept proves jarring and not relatable. The lack of character connection leaves an uncomfortable space in a film that otherwise has all the hallmarks of greatness.
Visually beautiful, at times the film reverberates with an almost Middle-Earth feel, taking in some incredible panning shots of Icelandic scenery as we follow Mitty on his quest. The plot never lacks momentum, which keeps things engaging though the comedic writing is hit and miss. These elements try to fill the void left by the lack of character but it’s an impossible task, relying on them to provide emotional connection is like relying on a key change in a song to do the same. It’s a film that admirably reaches out to touch our hearts, but finds itself a few inches short. Without a doubt you’ll enjoy watching Mitty travel around the world on his adventure, but it’s unlikely you’ll experience any movement yourself.
Published in Gazette Group titles (Swords Gazette, Malahide Gazette, Blanchardstown Gazette, Castleknock Gazette, Dundrum Gazette, Dun Laoghaire Gazette, Lucan Gazette, Clondalkin Gazette) on 26th Dec 2013.