The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
The Walter Mitty character was itself dreamed up by James Thurber in a 1939 short story and has somehow snowballed into a soulless exercise in special effects. Despite a half-decent 1947 adaptation, Ben Stiller has dared to remake the story again – and it is in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty that we discover Stiller dreams in expensive CGI filtered by industrious corporate videos, with an imagination rooted in forgetful Hollywood blockbusters and fast food advertisements.
For those unfamiliar, the original Walter Mitty is a shy, exhausted man who tires of his wife’s company and drifts off into war-influenced daydreams, rather like Snoopy’s pretend battles with the Red Baron. In Stiller’s update, the same character is now at Life magazine; bullied by his boss (Adam Scott), closer to the sack than he is with his mother (Shirley MacLaine) and sister (Kathryn Hahn).
Walter silently and jealously handles images of beautiful landscapes for the publication, with many snapped by photojournalist Sean (coincidentally played by Sean Penn). As a reserved office drone, Walter stumbles over words and desperately wishes to string a few sentences together with co-worker and love interest Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). It’s a role that demands an unfamiliar face, or someone who disappears into the crowd without interrupting the conversation. In other words, it needs someone other than Stiller.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is even more flawed during its selling point: the dreams themselves. Whether swimming away from a shark or leaping into a burning building, Stiller’s presence is too reminiscent of his many action films. Think back to The Watch (Stiller fights an alien), Tower Heist (Stiller robs a safe) or Night at the Museum (Stiller runs from dinosaurs). It’s actually harder to believe Stiller as an everyday employee, which unintentionally becomes the fantasy: an A-lister, sick of Hollywood, dreams about office monotony.
Many of Walter’s daydreams revolve around a global search for a missing photograph. The sequences look expensive, sure, but are a missed opportunity to let loose creatively. Otherwise, is there much point? In 2013, there’s nothing exciting about bland genre parodies that fizzle out after a few minutes. I only need to think back a year ago to Holy Motors that explored the medium’s possibilities with a similarly episodic structure. Even Sucker Punch – and this is definitely not flattering – possesses more imagination. The only moment when Stiller’s direction stretches itself is when product placement enters the frame, with the camera and script cunningly finding any way to shove in a Papa John’s reference.
The dreams follow the cliche that it’s unexciting listening to someone else’s dreams, especially when it combines with the other cliche of “...and then I woke up and it was all a dream.” The formula is overplayed for two hours, zipping back into reality like an episode of Scrubs without the humour. Walter awakes, yet there’s no humour; those around are the straight men not in on the joke, yet he by definition is the film’s straight man.
Strangely, less is learned about Walter as time passes by. There’s little indication as to why he’s so exasperated with him family – or if that’s even the case – because barely any of the two hours is spent on characterisation. (Wiig’s role is alarmingly stripped of personality, even in the dream world.) With such a thin script, I too often zoned out and became my own Walter Mitty, fantasising about the many other films I could be seeing instead.
After the first few scenes, it’s already apparent that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is really a collection of terrible Hollywood films Ben Stiller is threatening to make, all compiled in a larger one he shouldn’t have made in the first place.
United States of America
114 mins approx