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Dustin Putman

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty  (2013)
3.5 Stars
Directed by Ben Stiller.
Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Shirley MacLaine, Kathryn Hahn, Adam Scott, Adrian Martinez, Patton Oswalt, Joey Slotnick, Jonathan C. Daly, Kai Lennox, Amy Stiller, Conan O'Brien.
2013 – 114 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for some crude moments, language and mild violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 13, 2013.
Review Update (12/27/2016):

The below review reflects my initial feelings upon seeing "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty during its initial 2013 theatrical release, when I rated it 2.5/4 stars. In the years since, I have revisited the film a number of times, my affection for its low-key yet truly sublime observations on "the quintessence of life" growing deeper with each passing year. This is a genuinely special film of pure emotion, heart and humanity, beautiful and wondrous all at once. My initial review claimed the film "does not register as adeptly or emotionally as one hopes," but that it "does make a truthful, comforting impression at its own pace, on its own terms." While the former quote no longer holds up to my current, more passionate thoughts on the picture, the latter remains ever true.

Original 2.5 Star Review:

For a film all about the importance of seizing the moment, taking the time to see the natural beauty in the world, and living like there's no tomorrow, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" does not register as adeptly and emotionally as one hopes. For every second, it is visually resplendent and there is not a doubt that director Ben Stiller (2008's "Tropic Thunder") put every fiber of his soul into the finished product. As written by Steve Conrad (2006's "The Pursuit of Happyness"), loosely based on the 1939 short story by James Thurber, this has been a long-gestating project that has been in development for over ten years, passing through any number of major filmmakers' and actors' hands. The version that has finally made it out is gushing with nice ideas and valiant intentions, but the story rambles and the forward momentum never speeds past lackadaisical. The viewer waits for things to take off and soar, but it never quite does. At the same time, there is a lot to appreciate here and the lasting impression it leaves actually improves rather than wilts with time and distance. There is something appreciable about a big-budget character piece that has sky-high production values, but is more interested in the people and themes on the screen than blowing stuff up and catering to the mainstream.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), 40, works as a negative asset manager at Life, collaborating with photographers and keeping track of their photographs for use within the pages of the magazine. He's a lonely guy with a limitless imagination, his mind apt to wander off into daydreams as a way of reconciling how uneventful his own existence is. On the day he opens an account on eHarmony in an attempt to virtually meet a co-worker he has been pining for from afar, single mom Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), it is announced by tactless boss Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) that the upcoming physical issue will be the last for the magazine. As Cheryl and the rest of his colleagues prepare to lose their jobs, Walter is suddenly left scrambling to find shot 25—described as "the quintessence of life"—from photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), the very one which he has requested be used on the final cover. Inspired by Cheryl's words to live in the moment, Walter takes a portion of his savings and hops a plane to Greenland to track O'Connell down before the publication deadline. What follows is a multi-country odyssey that will take him from the stormy open seas to the path of a volcano eruption to the snowy peaks of Iceland. And maybe, if the stars are aligned, he'll get the girl.

The advertising and promotional campaign behind "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" has focused on the special effects-laden set-pieces that primarily occur in the title character's thoughts and wonderments, a somewhat dishonest representation of a film that, similar to 2007's "Bridge to Terabithia," is really, at its core, a human story set in the everyday world. Families with younger kids drawn into this film will likely be bored by what is basically a drama about a guy's midlife crisis. For those searching for more adult fare over Christmas that still has a slick-looking aesthetic, it should work better. The spare, rocky, rustically beautiful vistas which Walter passes through bring a sense of grandeur to the otherwise personal, low-key premise, and it doesn't hurt when the sights are accompanied by a richly composed score from Theodore Shapiro (2012's "Hope Springs") and towering soundtrack cuts that include "Lake Michigan" by Rogue Wave, "Dirty Paws" by Of Monsters and Men, and "Wake Up" by Arcade Fire.

In addition to directing, Ben Stiller takes on the lead part of Walter Mitty. It's a reeled-back performance that reminds of the straight men he used to play back in the mid-'90s "Reality Bites" era, but he isn't a standout. As game as Stiller is—and one can see he is immensely passionate about this picture—his Walter isn't as involving or endearing as is clearly intended. He should grab the audience and make them root and love him, but he never grows beyond merely pleasant. Kristen Wiig (2013's "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues"), always so versatile as she moves effortlessly between being uproariously funny and striking breathtaking notes of pathos, also gets a relatively straight, understated character to play here. As Cheryl, Wiig is, in many ways, the heart-filled muse for Walter's travels; every scene she is in is all the better for it, and this most certainly includes a lovely scene in which Walter imagines her serenading him with a soulful acoustic cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."

As Walter's supportive mother, Shirley MacLaine (2012's "Bernie") is tender and energetic, their mother-son relationship unforced and touching. As flighty aspiring sister Odessa, much of Kathryn Hahn's (2013's "We're the Millers") role and the way she nonchalantly uses Walter feels unfinished. There is an unspoken contention between them, though one could read this as being exactly the point; Walter allows people to take advantage of him in a variety of ways, and, at least early on, he doesn't have the wherewithal to stand up for himself. A loose, sage-like Sean Penn (2013's "Gangster Squad") also shows up, his professional photographer Sean O'Connell only appearing a few times but crucial to the film's ultimate path.

What is in the elusive twenty-fifth shot from O'Connell's roll? It is the overriding mystery that "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" eventually reveals. Walter's self-made mission to find it will not save his job—he already knows he is being laid off—but achieving this goal and being able to deliver upon his promise to the big bosses at Life is symbolic of much more than fulfilling a work duty. He isn't happy—hasn't been happy for a long time—and breaking out from his comfort zone and letting go of some of his fears is critical if he ever hopes to move forward, personally and professionally. "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" doesn't resonate with the sheer force and impact it could have, and yet it still does make a truthful, comforting impression at its own pace, on its own terms.
© 2013 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman