If there’s one thing that I’ve learned this year, it’s that trailers cannot be trusted. This summer, I was overly excited for Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, thanks to its expertly directed first trailer. The same was true for Ben Stiller’s sixth directorial effort, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Like the former, Walter Mitty generated a lot of positive buzz prior to its release, which ultimately left a lot of critics disappointed because the actual film is kind of a mess.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a very loosely based adaptation of a short story of the same name written in 1939 by James Thurber. In the story, the eponymous Walter frequently daydreams as a means to spice up a mundane shopping trip with his wife. Throughout its tortuously long development process, a myriad of directors and lead actors accepted- and then dropped- their various positions. Ultimately, Ben Stiller was billed as both the director and the lead in 2011, and production began shortly thereafter. It seems like Stiller had no clear vision for the film, and subsequently attempts to span a number of genres and ends up executing none of them particularly well. As is so often the case, a whole bunch of little bits and pieces stitched together from other genres amounts to a whole bunch of nothing at all.
The film stars Ben Stiller as Mitty and Kristen Wiig as stereotypical love interest Cheryl Melhoff. Sean Penn also makes an appearance as the globe-trotting, Hemingway-esque photojournalist Sean O’Connell, whom Walter is tasked with tracking down. Stiller and Wiig have this weird chemistry between them which relies upon really awkward, hard to watch interactions. I’m not sure who decided that it would be engaging to watch the world’s two most awkward people play off one another, but it does little in the way of making us relate to Walter’s character and his desire to woo her.
According to Wikipedia, Walter Mitty is a “romantic adventure fantasy comedy-drama.” With such a broad ‘vision,’ the film feels unfocused and a little schizophrenic as comedy bits are interspersed with soul-searching sentimentality and sweeping, panoramic shots of epic landscape with little transition in between. Just as the tone of the movie is a bit scattered, the plotting has some pretty serious problems as well. Walter Mitty employs a narrative technique that another critic once called ‘fashionably-late syndrome,’ which relies on the objective having moved on to a different location once the protagonist has caught up with it. Aside from being a really shitty way to get the audience to become engaged- there’s usually not enough payoff for us to keep our interest- it’s a great way to showcase as many exotic locations and set pieces in a relatively small amount of time, which is probably what Stiller was trying to accomplish in lieu of a more substantive story.
Making matters worse is the fact that the film is incredibly gimmicky. Stiller no doubt knew that he had an interesting idea in the form of the day dreaming sequences, but it’s clear that he had no idea how to implement them. It’s weird, because those sequences- which are presumably supposed to be the selling point of the movie- occur only within the first thirty minutes, and do nothing to progress the plot or teach us anything new about the characters. They could have been taken out entirely and Walter Mitty would have been essentially the same movie. I’d ask why they were put in the film at all, but the cynic in me would say that they needed some action sequences to flash on the screen for the trailers.
On a different note, the amount of product placement in this movie is just absurd. Product placement doesn’t even bother me as much as it does other people, so just know that it had to be really noticeable for me to comment on it at all. Throughout the entire film, the audience is bombarded with everything from Papa John’s and Chase Bank to eHarmony and Cinnabon. It’s a little worrying, to be frank. It even makes me wonder if so many high-profile sponsors contributed to the film being as inoffensively bland as possible.
That being said, I did have higher hopes for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but I guess I’ve learned my lesson. If it’s any consolation though, the film actually looks really pretty, with a bright, visually engaging palate and some jaw-dropping nature shots. Some great cinematography does not a good film make, however, and Walter Mitty is no exception.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5