"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," directed by Ben Stiller and based on the short story by James Thurber, is all inspiration, all of the time. It’s a movie that wears its desire to move the audience on its sleeve.
There’s a big difference, however, between wanting to move and inspire people and actually doing it, and "Walter Mitty" can’t quite pull it off. It’s not because of a lack of effort but quite the opposite: It tries too hard, loading up on upbeat folk rock hits, meaningful quotes and carpe diem lifeisms without any nuance or ever really earning the emotions involved. For all of the movie’s well-meaning sincerity and creative direction, it ends feeling as empty and vapid as YOLO. Actually, can we rename the film "YOLO: The Movie (Brought To You By eHarmony and Cinnabon)"?
Walter (Stiller) is a boring forty-something dweeb who leads a comfortable, if utterly unremarkably life. His existence is painted in every color on the beige spectrum. His only moments of excitement come when he zones out, imagining himself dramatically flying through buildings, battling his smug new techno-savvy bully of a boss (Adam Scott) and impressing his divorced co-worker crush Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) with his puppy-saving prowess.
These hyperactive mental adventures, however, lead to a lot of awkwardness for Walter, as he often drifts into them right in the middle of conversation. They’re a little awkward for the audience as well, since they’re not particularly exciting (we know they’re daydreams) or funny, save for one bizarre extended reference to "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Instead, they just kind of feel like Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad are making sure the audience is still paying attention.
Anyways, thanks to his job at Life Magazine (a boring man works at Life? Oh, the whimsical irony), Walter’s dreams of adventure soon turn into reality. A very valuable photo negative from professional photographer/globe-trekker Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) for the cover of Life’s final print issue – something that already happened back in 2007 – has gone missing. The only solution is to follow the clues in O’Connell’s other photos, track down the elusive freelancer and snag the beloved photo, called "The Quintessence of Life."
Walter’s journey takes him across the globe – from Greenland to Afghanistan – giving our once dull hero some new confidence, a new lease on life and a very impressive eHarmony profile, helpfully updated by the most cheerful phone help desk employee (Patton Oswalt) in history.
The dating website is just one of the blatant examples of product placement scattered throughout Stiller's movie. Life Magazine makes sense thematically even if it's a bit on the head, and Papa John's, though distracting, is at least a symbol of Walter's transformation from a mohawk-rocking skateboard kid into a dull grown-up. But eHarmony and Cinnabon are glaringly obvious and serve no purpose. Lines are even worked into the script to praise the products on screen. Somewhere, two marketing departments are having the happiest of holidays.
That's merely a minor distracting quibble, however, in a movie with plenty of major ones. At one point during his travels, a character tells Walter, "Beautiful things don’t ask for attention." It’s too bad "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" ignores its own perfectly good advice in this case, since the film’s adventure can’t stop asking for attention and wonderment.
While on his journey, Walter battles sharks and flees an exploding volcano. It’s oddly contradictory to the film’s own grand message. The goal is to show how real life is even more rewarding than what your imagination can create, but Conrad and Stiller fill Walter’s adventures in reality with cartoonish levels of fake adrenaline and excitement. Reality isn’t even enough for the movie about how great reality can be; instead, it has to be blown up to preposterous levels and turned into an action movie.
That’s not the only weird element to the moral of "Walter Mitty." Early on in his adventures, Walter decides to hop on a helicopter piloted by an admittedly incredibly drunk man to the inspirational tune of "Space Oddity" (which everyone in the movie calls "Major Tom" to my great annoyance). Later, he travels to Afghanistan where he meets some warlords and wins their approval with some homemade Clementine cake. Who would’ve known world peace is a four-hour baking session away.
These moments are supposed to be charming, whimsical and an ode to adventure, but I found them mildly deranged – and in the case of the helicopter pilot example, fairly dangerous behavior to promote. Hopping into a vehicle with a drunk driver isn’t a blissful, throw-your-hands-in-the-air embrace of life; it’s a reprehensible risk to yourself and others.
Maybe I’m overthinking "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," a movie that’s as light as a feather – there’s almost no real conflict; Walter’s life is really quite comfortable, and even the quest for the photo doesn’t feel like much is at risk – and has one real motivation: to inspire.
A noble ambition, but the movie lays on the inspiration with such a blunt, smothering heavy hand that it’s hard to be won over. Walter’s character is so obviously drawn. He has an unused travel bag and an empty travel diary. His eHarmony profile doesn’t work because he can’t fill it with any notable experiences. Are you getting a trend here?
There’s a subplot involving Walter’s father and his death, but that’s only given a passing glimpse. Instead, that time is used for – you guessed it – more inspirational odes to pursuing your dreams. And in case you weren’t inspired enough, the film pulls out all of its favorite folk rock hits (Of Monsters and Men, Arcade Fire, anything upbeat and with a chorus of people yelling "Hey!") to set the soundtrack. I even like all of these songs, but it’s overload.
Throw in Life Magazine’s life-affirming motto – one made up for the movie – tattooed across the screen every five minutes, and even the authors of "Chicken Soup for the Soul" would be left begging for some restraint.
The craftsmanship is certainly there in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." As a director, Stiller ("Tropic Thunder") is very creative and inventive. The movie and picturesque settings are often beautiful to look at. A sequence involving Stiller skateboarding down a winding road is admittedly a bit of a rush, and a mesmerizingly seamless early transition looks like something you'd expect from Tarsem Singh ("The Fall"). It also moves with a light energy that matches its light story.
Wiig and Stiller make for nice company as well, especially Wiig, who enlivens a potentially bland role with effortless charisma. Adam Scott even finagles a few laughs from under his awful fake beard, especially in an early scene when he and his cohorts are announcing the sad future of Life Magazine while clumsily trying to pick the right emotions.
Even with all of its flaws, there's something warm about "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." It's hard to dislike a movie that's trying so hard to be liked. But really, the film is basically a two-hour inspirational poster: pretty, but pretty trite too.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.