THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is Ben Stiller’s struggle to reinvent himself. Desperately dog paddling away from his miniature Stallone and Tom Cruise imitations in poorly drafted satires. Tropic Thunder was Stiller’s last half way success. Thanks to the poignant casting of Robert Downey Jr. in black face, a radical idea. Still the movie stalled when Stiller’s over acting and parodies failed to amuse. The writing was on the wall, evolve or see yourself crash and emplode. Walter Mitty is Stiller’s best attempt at elevating his acting, directing and career.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) works at LIFE magazine as it’s Negative Assets Manager, right before it’s shut down, the end of a glorious era brought to it’s knees by the sordid shallow squabbling of the internet and it’s free for all mediocrity. The history of our culture depicted and curated by Mitty has become quaint, but useless to newer generations. Yet before Mitty’s job ends he has one last journey to accomplish for LIFE. Finish it’s LAST issue and but the photo for its cover has gone missing. To get that photo Mitty must find the photographer and that means leaving his safe catacombs of life and enter the real world.
The real star of Walter Mitty and it’s main source of inspiration is the wondrous cinematography of Stuart Dryburgh. I rarely see such invigorating wide shots with such weight and compelling composition. I was immediately pulled into Mitty’s world.
The ultimate vanity hipster crew of deluded wanna be’s arrive to dissect LIFE and transform it into a virtual abbreviation. Spear headed by the narcissistic TED (Adam Scott) the crew ridicule Mitty and his job, though it’s apparent they have no idea what it is. They foretell a world of vaporware and vapor heads running the world into a flaming mountain while shoving their heads up their phones asses. So to speak. Adam creates Ted with his usual flair of pinpoint egoism, but it’s a by the numbers routine for him by now and leaves us with someone to dislike but sadly goes nowhere.
MItty’s inner life is a complex vision of escapism, day dreams and wishful thinking. Greatly contrasted by the reality of the womb like archive basement in the LIFE building where he worked a lifetime. Mitty evades stress by imagining himself a heroic figure that walks the real magic of the worlds mountain tops while his true self tools in the lower ranks as his mountain of Life is being disassembled above him. Yet these fantasies seem hollow, they don’t really bring a supernatural vision that feels complete and are easily ignored or the spell broken by his Gucci attackers. The costume fits Stiller yet he falls short in his portrayal of Mitty’s inner world.
Where the hell is negative No. 25!? It’s missing! The holy grail of negatives is missing. Without it there is no final issue of LIFE. Walter and his assistant use all their detective skills examining the evidence of the left over negatives to create a world surrounding Sean O’Connell. Where in the world is Sean O’Connell? The photographer of LIFE’S last issue’s cover.
Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) mesmerizingly beckons Walter to follow him into his enthralling world of adventure. A life Walter can only envy, but is about to succumb to. National Geographic photographer Marcus Bleasdale. supplies authenticity with real photography behind Penn.
Yearning to impress co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) Mitty struggles with his masculine expression after decades of hiding in silence. Still there is another side to Mitty, in his youth he was a maverick, a radical skater dude with mad skills and they come in very useful on his wild chase after Sean and the missing negative No. 25. Call this the update to the original 1947 version starring Danny Kaye. The first Walter Mitty film strangely excluded skateboarding as I think it wasn’t invented yet.
Still, it’s empty moments with Cheryl. She seems uninterested at best. Maybe they could be friends but lovers or married? I don’t see any roads to that future. It would have added some substance to Mitty’s adventure to actually have a hopeful romance for him to return to or fight for. It feels more like he is handing her an Egg McMuffin and she can’t seem to get the right change from him.
Finally Walter knows he must break the barrier of his fears and leave home on the greatest adventure of his life. Armed only with a few missing pieces of the puzzle Mitty takes flight to parts unknown. Stillers performance is subdued and adequete but often the inner turmoil seems lacking. I think the film could have used greater depth in his performance to endear the audience more. Too often I felt disengaged from Mitty almost not liking him. A quality Stiller seems to bring to most of his characters though I do see an improvement in portraying a character’s inner life aside from Stillers skill at a piercing confused gaze.
In a tiny bar across the world Mitty finds a large man with a very recognizable thumb, and the ability to drink vast amounts of ale. Fat man drinks from a glass shoe. Cinderella? No. Helicopter pilot that flies through storms. This bloated butterfly is about to deliver gear to a ship that may be where Sean is. A trail Mitty can’t leave cold.
Startling almost 3d shots make you reel. It adds so much to the subject’s drama and experience. A true example of what cinema means, of how proper camera work is used to create the visual aspects of a story and transform the narrative. A skill very lacking in modern movies and this wonderful aspect transforms WALTER MITTY into a striking film not to be denied, despite its script often lacking dimension.
It’s unimaginable that Mitty would fling himself from a helicopter into an ocean filled with sharks to get aboard a tiny ship in a huge ocean, in Greenland. When a mere day ago he was swimming with office sharks in tailored trousers submerged in his dark office in a sea of unexposed negatives, but that’s the thrill of his adventure and it’s happy insanity.
What a glorious scope. Mitty takes on epic proportions as his travels continue and Dryburgh delivers yet more visual treats that pump the heart for us cubicle trapped saps. What a great combination of music and soul as Mitty finally takes flight and renews his spirit on a longboard he trades for, in the middle of where? Iceland?, exactly. This is fun.
Oh, I guess I will suddenly just kinda of trip over him. Possible? No! Suddenly Mitty looks like it’s shot on a set. After all the glorious ranges of mountains, seas and roads. The climax is constrained to a small patch of land with Sean found undercover spouting buddhist flavored quips like a weary sage. Terribly anticlimactic, hardly acceptable, better to smash into Sean at 100 mph in runaway jeeps on a cliff road chased by Rhino poachers. Anything but this tiny ending to the heavy breathing escapism of Mitty’s journey to find Sean. Sean should have never been found or found dying to tell Mitty the negative was in his back pocket wallet the whole time.
The most confusing part of Mitty is why the LIFE photographer Sean doesn’t recognize Walter when found on a mountain top. When his last photo was of Walter. Sent to Walter, hidden in a wallet Walter threw away. Which becomes the last cover for LIFE.
Negative No. 25 was in a gift Sean sent Walter, which Walter promptly threw away, much to Sean’s confusion. So they walk out to play a game of soccer with the locals, carefree and alive, because at this point no one cares.
Sean plays more of a parody of a rough drinking, adventurer photographer with a wild reputation working for LIFE magazine. A lesser known actor carrying less of his own image with him, would have successfully filled out Mitty’s motivation to break the confines of his safe basement world. It’s a big hole in Mitty, coupled with Cheryl’s lacking as a love interest, and you have WALTER MITTY failing to sustain itself. The few engaging characters he mets along his trip are not pivotal enough to maintain the drama.
For all it’s charm and meaningful cinematography, MITTY fails to sustain its promise by not filling itself up with more substance. A gorgeous meal that sadly doesn’t fill you up. It leaves you wondering how so much could still leave you unsatisfied. A full course meal needs a climatic desert. Or in this case a proper third act.
Still a valiant effort that just needed another rewrite before heading for the mountains of cinematic history. I hope Stiller keeps resurrecting himself or makes the attempt. I am starting to like the little guy. This is the first Stiller film I would watch again, it has replay value and that is saying a lot.