Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The (2013)


New Millennium Daydreams

Main Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig

Director: Ben Stiller

The Story

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) works at Life Magazine.  He has a vital, if underwhelming, job – he’s a negative assets manager.  Not like financial assets, like negatives.  You know, pictures.  The life blood of Life.  But print magazines are dinosaurs and Life is going digital.  The company is in upheaval, and the final print issue in the works.  Famous photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) sends Walter what he believes to be the perfect picture for the cover, a gift for Walter after many years of working together.  Unfortunately, the negative gets lost and it’s up to Walter to find it before the transition team, headed by bully Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) makes sure he gets fired.

That doesn’t sound that exciting.  But Walter has a couple of secrets.  The first one is his crush on co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) and the second is his frequent tendency to lapse into elaborate daydreams in which he does all of the heroic things of which he feels completely incapable in his regular, work-a-day life.  Those daydreams are The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

The Verdict

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is based on a short story by James Thurber written in 1939.  The story has been famously adapted before in the 1949 comedy of the same name starring Danny Kaye.  It’s a mistake to compare the two movies.  What they have in common is source material – this Walter Mitty is not a remake of the 1947 Walter Mitty.  Even the 1947 Walter Mitty was criticized from deviating too far from the original story.  Some 50+ years later, this is a brand new film based on the fantastical imaginings of a downtrodden man.  It’s important to go into the film as objectively as possible – we all know that no new film can trump nostalgia.

Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig by Eva Rinaldi

Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig at the 2013 Sydney premiere of Walter Mitty. Photo by Eva Renaldi

That said, this version of Walter Mitty is very, very good.  Ben Stiller does a nice job with his role as the browbeaten but loyal and hardworking Walter, whose dreams help him survive daily indignities in the workplace.  His wild fantasies are great fun to watch and the effects are terrific.  Stiller does well with these slightly somber roles – Walter is funny, but not in a silly, slapstick way.  We root for him to find that damn picture and his ever more outrageous adventures as he attempts to do so feel joyful and liberating as he begins to live fantasies he hasn’t even imagined.

The supporting cast is fine, if not outstanding.  Kristen Wiig is sweet as Walter’s potential love interest, Scott is sufficiently smarmy that we hate him (thus liking Walter even more) and Penn is suitably enigmatic.

The film ends up being a rather charming tribute not only to quiet, hardworking men without flashy trappings, but also to the rapidly dying era of the print magazine.  Walter moves from the past to the present in any number of ways as we move through his desperate search for the missing negative.  As he becomes part of the real world, it’s easy to cheer him on.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  I think director Stiller did a terrific job bringing the original story into the new millennium.  I liked the characters and the visuals are absolutely stunning – I’m sorry I didn’t see it on the big screen.  If you have a giant TV, I envy your viewing experience. 4 out of 5 stars for Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.   Just like Walter, viewers need to stop living in the past and embrace this updated version of Thurber’s short story without misplaced nostalgia for a different film with different goals.  Enjoy it for itself, don’t compare, and I think you’ll find a lot to love.

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