The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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UK Release Date 26th December 2013
Director Ben Stiller
Starring Guy Pearce
Runtime 114 Minutes
Certificate PG
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 27th December 2013

I’m sure that I’ve read James Thurber’s short story but I have a sneaking suspicion it was probably for a lesson at school. I have therefore completely forgotten it. So I start this review from my usual viewpoint on movies adapted from much loved books - I make no reference to how loyal this is to the source material and as with most of these things, I suspect that is very much the best starting point.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is arguably Ben Stiller’s first attempt at directing a proper movie. After the spectacularly hit and miss attempts of The Cable Guy, Zoolander, and Tropic Thunder, all effectively movie length sketch shows, this one has a proper narrative and genuine aspirations towards saying something. Which of course leads to some concern. Concern which I now realise was completely misplaced.

We pick up with our eponymous non-hero as he attempts to virtually wink at a co-worker via e-Harmony whilst diligently filling out his savings book. His savings book is entirely dominated by his efforts to move his long-widowed mother and her prized piano and his apparently out of character attempts to ‘wink’ at the co-worker are scuppered by a technical glitch. This leads to a movie length relationship with Todd, the e-Harmony customer services agent who picks up Walter’s call. Walter arrives at work at Time Magazine (where he works in Negative Assets in a particularly movie specific basement) to discover that the magazine is closing and moving online. A chance encounter with Ted Hendricks (the cartoonishly evil corporate stooge) puts him on upper management’s radar and a missing photo slide from legendary photographer Sean O’Connell puts into motion events that will change Walter’s life. Walter characteristically drifts through most of this whilst daydreaming about new colleague Cheryl Melhoff, who happens to work in a department that might be able to help him locate the missing slide.

In terms of plot and characters, there isn’t much about this movie that you won’t already have seen. The setup is very straightforward, an everyman with nothing in his life is thrown into adversity and steps up, changing everything with apparent ease as a series of serendipitous events lead him to an inevitably happy conclusion. And indeed from that description, you’d probably have as many reservations as I did going in to this movie. The reason this movie gets away with it is its straight-faced charm. Stiller occasionally drops into his previous sketch style format, the daydreaming theme is particularly susceptible to this, but for the most part, this one is played with a straight bat. Which isn’t to say it’s not funny, it certainly has moments, though nothing you could describe as laugh out loud funny.

Walter Mitty is a beautiful film to behold. From the opening credits, written on various everyday objects (buildings, roads, train station signs) to the immense vistas of Iceland, every part of the movie is lovingly rendered. Again, not all of this is new but Stiller gets away with it by it being so gorgeous to look at. At one point a text message manifests on the side of a mountain as Walter reads it on his phone - gimmicky but it somehow just works here. A number of occasions see Walter do things that you suspect were put in entirely for the looks, for example skateboarding down a winding road between volcanoes, but you’ll forgive this as you marvel at just how great everything looks and how well it all meshes to form a overriding sense of wonder.

Stiller is solid as Walter, spending a large amount of time staring with impossibly blue eyes and Kirsten Wiig is perfectly believable as the co-worker Walter finds himself pursuing. Wiig is just beautiful enough, just kookie enough and just, well, ordinary enough for us to buy that she would have time for somebody like Walter. Adam Scott puts in a hilarious beard performance as the stereotypical capitalist pig, Shirley MacLaine adds some gravitas as Walter’s mum and Sean Penn’s presence as felt largely remotely as the catalyst for Walter’s behaviour. Beyond them the cast is relatively anonymous, with maybe the exception being Todd (Patton Oswald) from e-Harmony whose regular badly timed phone-calls to Walter raise more than the odd chuckle.

I’ve seen this movie compared, favourably, to Forest Gump, and it does share some elements, particularly in its reliance on friendly and helpful strangers but it’s far less saccharine than Gump. It is incredibly fluffy and if you spend any time questioning it, I’ve no doubt your enjoyment will be reduced but if you give this the benefit of the doubt and give it the goodwill it so clearly deserves, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a wonderful experience. At its best, it may even get you thinking about your early dreams and just how they worked out. Or didn’t, as is more likely. For an earnest film, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and its lead / director has more than enough confidence and ability to carry off its higher aspirations. The visuals are stunning and although Walter’s transformation is way too easy and way too neat, you won’t begrudge it him for a second. Even as a well seasoned cynic, I found myself charmed to the core by this movie. It stays just the right side of sentimental and even finds time to throw in the second (and best) shark fight of the holiday season. If you’re prepared to join Walter’s dreamworld, you’ll be rewarded. If you’re too cynical for even that, I don’t envy your world.

Check out the trailer here.

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