Film Review: 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'
Opened: 25 December 2013
Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn and Sean Penn
Director: Ben Stiller
Producers: Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., John Goldwyn, Stuart Cornfeld and Ben Stiller
"The New Forrest Gump..." squeals the quoted caption on the marketing for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Is it? No, it really is not! Aside from both tales rooting for the underdog, listing the comparable differences would require enough spoilers to drive readers of this review to hunt me down with pitch forks and flaming torches… that is not an invitation!
Ben Stiller returns to the director’s chair and stars as Mitty, a normal guy who thinks so little of himself that he engages in fantastical daydreams where he is the ultimate over-achiever and simultaneously adept at everything.
Although Stiller is not fully convincing as Mitty, who has a rhinoceros hide of confidence for someone so apparently timid, his portrayal is nonetheless endearing and you do find yourself quietly rooting for him. The real gems of the film are the supporting cast; led by Kristen Wiig delivering a sincere and uncomplicated performance as Cheryl, Walter’s colleague and unrequited. One has to wonder if casting Wiig as the love interest was a risk, given she is still not yet a huge name internationally. Once the movie starts however she is a joy to watch from the moment she first appears. However, if you are planning to see this movie as a fan of her comedy work you may want to stay home because her punch line opportunities are few and far between. The real comedy turns are left to Adam Scott as Walter’s sharp witted bully boss Ted Hendricks and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as the drunkard Karaoke singer, swigging from a boot of ale; both performances perfectly create the real life adversity that Walter will need to overcome to feel like a winner, while adding intelligently deployed levity.
The film is beautifully shot and this aspect really picks up around the second act when Mitty sets off on his journey. Unfortunately the first act of the film struggles to engage; most the dream sequences are drawn out or too ridiculous for the tone of the rest of the movie, which for the greater part is warm and genuine storytelling. Sadly this opening gambit leaves the film segmented and delays our investment in the story’s characters, while also leaving us unsure of what exactly it is we are watching
The most notable achievement of the movie is in its subtlety. Following the example of its central character the tone is quiet, coaxing and never ham-fisted with its message, gently allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions. The grand reveals of traditional Hollywood mechanics are replaced with fleeting human moments that allow the audience to make up its own mind about what is going on (a feature of the script and Stiller’s direction which I absolutely love). Given that the original Walter Mitty of the 1939 short series (printed in The New Yorker) is now unequivocally seen as a sociopath, it was never going to be easy an transition to make him an affable and relatable average Joe. A great deal of work has clearly been done in preproduction and in the writing to achieve Walter’s likeability (which really shows) and create a story with a good heart and worth while message. Ultimately many other films have delivered the same message with more finesse and skill but if you are looking for a movie that inspires enjoyable contemplation without condescension then Walter Mitty is your man.
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