The Secret Life of Walter Mitty review: Ben Stiller’s excellent adventure

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty green light Ben Stiller

A cheery, airy fairy tale filled with a very modern ache and buoyed by an infectious joy. I love this movie.
I’m “biast” (pro): like Stiller as a filmmaker; the trailer thrilled me

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The first thing I had to do after laughing through, weeping over, and reveling in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is grab two amazing songs off the soundtrack to listen to over and over again, to recapture the walking-on-air feeling the movie left me with. Those songs are “Step Out” by Swedish folk-pop singer José González and “Dirty Paws” by indie Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men. Everybody sings in English, and both songs are available on iTunes, and you need them, too, even if you’ve only heard these songs in the trailers for the film, buoying them with a sense of the fairy tale, but also with a very modern ache for something more than what reality is offering. As they do the film itself.

Oh my god, I love this movie. You know, in a way that makes me wanna cry over its bittersweetly pragmatic approach to dealing with that ache for something more.

Forget the James Thurber short story and the 1947 film of the same name. This bears little resemblance to either beyond the shared title (at least as far as I can tell from reading synopses of them). Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty is not an ineffectual, henpecked doofus. He’s been doing quite a responsible job extremely well for a decade and a half, as the photo manager for Life magazine, and apparently the only one able to deal with superstar Indiana Jones-esque photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn: Gangster Squad, Milk). But now a valuable O’Connell negative has gone missing, an image intended for the cover — yes, O’Connell still shoots on film — and Walter is pushed into what becomes the sort of adventure he often daydreams about.

The daydreaming we can all identify with: it’s Walter’s way of getting through the day, and don’t we all do that? There is wonderfully funny — even downright thrilling — stuff in Walter’s daydreams, ridiculously preposterous and quixotic stuff that captures the outrageous nonsense we love movies for (another way to escape from real life). The best of it is the fantasy superhero sequence in which Walter imagines himself battling his deeply assholic new boss (Adam Scott: Bachelorette, Leap Year) through the streets of midtown Manhattan; it’s everything the new Spider-man movie should have been, and how I’d love to see Stiller direct a comic-book movie. Oh yes, Stiller (Tower Heist, Little Fockers) isn’t just the star but the director of this lovely film, and as fantastic as the daydreamy sequences are, even better are the real adventures that gentle Walter has on his search for the missing negative. Walter’s astonishment after one amazing event bursts out as a half-horrified, half-delighted “Oh my god, that really happened!” His joy at breaking out of his everyday is infectious, and Stiller-the-director works glory without needing to resort to fantasy: later, when Walter skateboards his way through the hills of rural Iceland, the palpable authenticity of such a physical feat is what makes it so electrifying.

Yes, Iceland. Walter’s journey to find O’Connell and discover where that missing negative might be is a globe-hopping one, and it is fraught by mundane practicalities: amidst his great adventure, Walter is counting his pennies. (His stop in Iceland includes one scene in which he’s tallying up the expenses of this trip.) Daydreaming is cheaper! Though not as much fun.

Actually heartbreaking, though, is the uncommented-upon integrity that is driving Walter. That new boss? He’s come in to shut down Life magazine, and Walter is about to lose the job that he is now taking his life in his hands to complete. He could have just let the missing negative go — what difference would it make, in the long run, or even in the short term? The script — by Steve Conrad, who’s shown, with his The Pursuit of Happyness and The Weatherman, that he knows about hardheaded reality — makes no bones about the fate of Life magazine: there is no prospect that it will be saved at the last minute. I suspect part of why the anachronism of Life was chosen for the setting here — the real magazine ceased publication as a standalone monthly way back in 2000 — is not just the iconic stature of its name but so that we would hold no hopes of its resurrection. It’s gone. It’s done. The question is only whether Walter will survive the sinking.

It’s clear, then, that as much as Walter would like to impress his pretty coworker (Kristen Wiig: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Girl Most Likely) with his derring-do — her online dating profile says she likes men who are “adventurous, brave, and creative” — the brave, adventurous, and creative lengths he goes to here in pursuit of that negative are about maintaining his own soul as his world is falling apart around him. Will he be downsized out of existence? Or will he endure?

And that may be the most bittersweet thing about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: the smallness of its expectations for its hero. Thank goodness it goes about pushing him toward a good end in a way that is as cheery and as airy as it is. I’m not sure I could bear it otherwise.

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Paul Wartenberg
Mon, Dec 23, 2013 12:26pm

The movie has a very Anderson-esque style to it (I thought Wes directed it at first until I saw Stiller’s name as the director).

Mon, Dec 23, 2013 2:03pm

I’m very much not a fan of the Thurber — I get a feeling from it that many people apparently don’t, that same “dreams are always and everywhere just a waste of time” that’s in the book (but not the film!) of The Princess Bride. So I was planning to skip this. But now I’ll give it a look. Thanks!

reply to  RogerBW
Mon, Dec 23, 2013 3:53pm

I always thought The Princess Bride was very pro-dreams. Every time there’s a cynical line, there’s also a long speech about true love. Some of them are so soppy it gets embarrassing:

I will be quiet for you or sing for you, or if you are hungry, let me bring you food, or if you have thirst and nothing will quench it but Arabian wine, I will go to Araby, even though it is across the world, and bring a bottle back for your lunch. Anything there is that I can do for you, I will do for you; anything there is that I cannot do, I will learn to do.

I think the message of the book is, “Have big dreams. Just don’t be stupid about it.” For example:

I mean, I really do think that love is the best thing in the world, except for cough drops. But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.

Mon, Dec 23, 2013 3:56pm

I’m glad its good Stiller is a really talented actor that seems to resort to self-humiliation too often.

Mon, Dec 23, 2013 5:00pm

Hmmm. The trailers made it look so weird, and it like it was trying to hard to be quirky and life changing. I figured it would be nothing to bother with. There’s a lot of negative reviews out there now, too.
Then I see this from you, a reviewer I trust and respect, and I am now conflicted.
No way was it ever going to be a theater visit. I’ll see it when ti comes out for home viewing.

Rod Ribeiro
Rod Ribeiro
reply to  MarkyD
Wed, Jan 01, 2014 8:44pm

I rarely see PG films in The Movies — they’re safe to play at home, so I tend to choose the Rs, which I want to keep away from my girls, for my nights out.

But this was a delight, and well worth the ticket prices. Photography is superb, I mean, Iceland, Greenland, the Himalayas… you should really see it in a big screen.

Tue, Dec 24, 2013 12:17am

I am SO glad this movie moved you as it did me. From some of the other early reviews, I thought I was in a crazy minority. Having now have seen Wolf Of Wall Street and August: Osage County, I’m glad this movie is in the marketplace, as well. I’d rather see this on Christmas Day than either of those two again.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  ajonze
Wed, Dec 25, 2013 1:58pm

How have you seen any of these movies? All are opening on Christmas Day.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Wed, Dec 25, 2013 2:21pm

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and free screenings happen on a weekly basis, so that’s how I see the great majority of my movies. They are offered through free pass codes or contests.

Tue, Dec 24, 2013 4:38am

This film hasn’t really been on my radar, but now it is. Thanks.

Of Monsters and Men are great. If you liked their song for the movie and you haven’t heard their album “Little Talks” yet, I’m quite sure you’d love it. And their music videos definitely emphasize the fairytale quality of their songs.

Sun, Dec 29, 2013 5:21am

Were you bothered by all the product placement, MaryAnn? The eHarmony references, in particular, took me out of the movie.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Danielm80
Sun, Dec 29, 2013 11:23am

Didn’t bother me.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Thu, Jan 30, 2014 5:40pm

But what about the Cinnabun(tm) sequence? Remember? The one where the camera frames the buns, Mitty is prying at his with his fork, and the eHarmony guy says “So, how’s that Cinnabun(tm)?” Mitty replies, “Good.” Didn’t feel even a twinge?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  razajac
Thu, Jan 30, 2014 7:42pm

That was not enough to ruin the movie for me.

Sun, Jun 01, 2014 2:52am

I loved it too
Sad how many people seemed turned off and cynical about it
Oh well
Their choice

Joe Schmoe
Joe Schmoe
reply to  Danno
Tue, Sep 09, 2014 4:36pm

It is easy to be cynical when it devolved into cheesy plot devices and off camera plot elements. Super Star photographer loves this office guy whom he never bothered to introduce himself to. Yet same photographer chums up with Walt’s mom. None of Walt’s adventures advanced the plot one iota. The scanner view of him fighting over his hidden flute with the TSA was so laughably out of place and pointless.