By Jay Sizemore
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a movie that thinks it has more to say than its own material and execution will allow it to say, which turns out to be an overly earnest and bittersweet lesson in why Hollywood can steal the soul out of anything, even from a movie attempting to put soul back into a culture slowly succumbing to a Narcissus complex. Expanding and modernizing the source material for today’s audience, the only thing noticeable from the original short story by James Thurber is the main character’s name and the fact that he tends to daydream. Ben Stiller is good in the role, though still the quirky Stiller character that he tends to be in almost every film he plays in. This inability for Stiller to make this character truly unique, and the fact that the film’s positive message is built upon a thin frame of Hollywood formula tropes, makes it impossible for the audience to fully suspend their disbelief, and thus to be helpless in noticing the contradictions and cliches holding it steadfastly in the territory of mediocrity.
What a shame, because it is a gorgeously filmed movie. The cinematography has lots to be admired throughout, from lavishly constructed shots showcasing the systematic clockwork of city life, to the scenic majesty of mountains or the serene pastoral landscapes of places like Greenland. It is visually stunning. But in a movie trying to say that instead of dreaming, a person should be living, and instead of taking pictures, a person should be experiencing, and instead of spending time on the internet or on the phone, a person should be free of distraction, there needs to be more than prettiness to succeed in convincing anyone. Ben Stiller, while a competent director, doesn’t have the chops to put himself in such a lead role, and make it seem like something more than an ego-trip. In the attempt to make a statement that on the surface seems admirable – it is better to go out and live life, than to simply become a faceless member of corporate America, it becomes hard not to notice the naivety of the endeavor with a character that has $8,000 in their checking account.
Aside from the above mentioned, this seems to be yet another movie that attempts to tell us that the point of existence is finding a soul mate. The whole point of life is to be with a member of the opposite sex and there is only one such person for everyone. Inside this familiar Hollywood theme, there is also the theme of how the internet is robbing us of reality, closing down major businesses to move them to a digital world, moving actual human interaction to “winks” on social networking. The problem is that these themes are more interesting than the central theme of person A and person B getting together. The film even goes so far as to commit a cardinal sin near its finale, by creating a cliche encounter with one of person B’s exes, which makes person A assume he has no chance and walk away, only to have it all revealed as a coincidental misunderstanding and still end up together. But ironically, in the context of the film, which focuses so much on Walter Mitty and his self-discovery of real life over fantasy, we don’t learn enough about any other character to care about them, or to even know why Walter cares about them, which ultimately leaves us empty and dissatisfied, even when faced with the cliche happy ending.
There are some elements that work well in the picture. Most of the daydreams are entertaining, except for a ludicrous one involving two characters skateboarding through the streets on pieces of broken concrete while fighting over a Stretch Armstrong doll. There is a moment with Sean Penn’s character up in the Himalaya mountains that is particularly captivating, containing the line of dialogue “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” But then, of course, you have to realize, this line is uttered in the very film released during the height of awards season, which makes its calculated sentimentality feel as deserving of admiration as a McDonald’s commercial, which ironically is mentioned in the film not as satire, but as one of the many lines of dialogue product placement. This is a movie that claims to want to change lives, but doesn’t want to try too hard to earn it.
Film Critic Jay Sizemore is part of The Missing Slate’s Film Team.