‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty:’ Advance Review

I wish Ben Stiller directed more.

I’m a big fan of his last effort, the great Hollywood satire Tropic Thunder.  You don’t grow up with the comedy genes Stiller possesses (His mom is Anne Meara, and his dad is Frank Costanza.) without learning a thing or two, and Tropic Thunder is a masterpiece of comic tone.  Think about it, that movie has three (Three!) elements that, in lesser hands, could have been horribly offensive.  You’ve got Robert Downey Jr. slathered in blackface.  You’ve got Stiller himself playing the mother of all mentally challenged characters, Simple Jack.  And, you’ve got a villain in the form of a small child who is also a ruthless drug lord.  Could you imagine the horror of Michael Bay’s Tropic Thunder

Stiller, the director, is back with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a project that has been in development hell for decades, with a laundry list of stars and directors who’ve been attached to it.  The great news here is that, despite the movie being a bit baggy in some places and not completely coming together as a cohesive whole, it shows Stiller having a lot of growth as a film artist.  This is a great-looking and mostly smart film.  Like I said, I wish Stiller directed more.

One of my most despised movies of all time is the Jim Carrey Grinch.  Man, is that thing atrocious.  One of its major issues is that it’s a very short story being blown up to feature length.  Even the animated Chuck Jones Grinch runs about 24 minutes and seems to be stretching the story to its breaking point.  Similarly, Walter Mitty is a full-blown feature film based on a James Thurber short story first published in The New Yorker in 1939.  The good news is Thurber’s story has a lot more room for invention than the Dr. Suess story did.  I do think Walter Mitty is soft in the middle and it feels long, but it doesn’t completely rip at the seams being blown up to feature length.

Stiller stars as the titular character, a very meek and timid man who is given to flights of daydreaming fantasy.  A person who has always stood on the sidelines, Walter’s life has been so uneventful he can’t even fill out an online dating profile.  That all changes very rapidly.  Walter works in the photo department at Life magazine and receives a reel of negatives from a rogue photojournalist named Sean O’Connor and played by Sean Penn.  The reel contains a negative numbered 25 that Sean intends to be the quintessential Life cover photo.  Of course, that negative is missing from the reel, so milquetoast Walter hits the road to find it, taking him to Greenland, Iceland, and, eventually, Afghanistan.  Suddenly, the guy with the overly active imagination is creating his own incredible visions.

I think Stiller and his screenwriter, Steve Conrad, have made a wise choice in setting the film in present day.  They’ve also grafted on the Life stuff and the search for the missing negative (It isn’t in the original Thurber story.), and that drives the plot while giving Walter a classic hero’s journey to embark on.  There’s also some really smart commentary about how modern technology has turned us all into reality dodging Walter Mittys in some fashion.  In the film, Life is being shuttered and producing its last print edition to make way for a digital online version.  This is the magazine that showed people the vast expanse of the world, and it’s going to wind up in cyberspace.  Throughout the film, Walter fails to make real connections with other people through our omnipresent social media platforms.  There’s a running gag about how he can’t send a wink to the girl he has a crush on at work (Kristen Wiig).  Patton Oswalt provides some great comic relief as the voice of an eHarmony customer service rep.
There are a lot of really smart ideas at play here, I just wish they added up for more of a whole for me.  The film’s theme is really simple (maybe too simple), and I was a bit bummed that it was pretty obvious what photo negative 25 turned out to be.

Still, there’s a lot to like here.  The early fantasy sequences are a lot of fun.  The later travelogue stuff is beautifully shot.  Stiller remains a fine comedic leading man.  Parks and Rec’s Adam Scott provides a great comic foil.

With the success of those Focker movies and the Night at the Museum movies, Stiller must have made plenty of money.  I really wish he’d direct more. 

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