A film review by Craig J. Koban January 3, 2014 


2013, PG-13, 114 mins.


Ben Stiller as Walter Mitty  /  Kristen Wiig as Cheryl Melhoff  /  Adam Scott as Ted Hendricks  /  Kathryn Hahn as Odessa Mitty  /  Patton Oswalt as Todd  /  Terence Bernie Hines as Gary  /  Sean Penn as Sean

Directed by Ben Stiller  /  Written by Steve Conrad, based on the short story by James Thurber

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY represents an honest and intrepid attempt by director Ben Stiller to make a clear and decisive break away from his previous film, 2008’s TROPIC THUNDER.  Appropriating elements from the 1939 short story of the same name by James Thurber (which was previously adapted into a 1947 feature film with Danny Kayne), Stiller was on the end of a long list of comedians (which included the likes of Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, and Sacha Baron Cohen) that wanted to take the old New Yorker published story and turn it into a fully fledged silver screen version.  On most levels THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY manages to combine its visual ambition, sobering dramatic themes, and tender performances with a real tact.  Even when the film falters, it’s hard to divert our attention away from it.   

At it’s core, the film is about a lonely everyman - prone to frequent daydreams where he imagines himself in borderline fantastical predicaments – that attempts to become a fully self-actualized person while grounded in the real world.  In Stiller’s version, he plays Mitty as a meek minded, Clark Kent-ian outcast that works in the photographic negative department at Life Magazine.  When he’s not daydreaming vicariously through the negatives he inspects at work, Walter is smitten with a local office colleague, Cheryl (a very fine and understated Kristen Wiig), and his attempts at leaving her a “wink” on her eHarmony account becomes an exercise in frustration for him (especially since actually approaching and talking to her is a Herculean task for the chronically shy Walter).   

Walter’s work life is thrown out of balance with the arrival of a new corporate big wig, Ted Hendricks (a reptilian Adam Scott) that wishes to completely downsize and eliminate Life as a magazine and turn it strictly into an online publication, which will leave many in the office getting the axe.  Walter’s final assignment is to get a final negative prepped for the final cover of Life Magazine, which was taken by an enigmatic globetrotting photographer, Sean (Sean Penn).  Alas, when it appears that the much sought after negative for the shot is missing, Walter decides to spring into action.  Thus begins a global trek – which takes him to places as far and wide as Greenland to Iceland to Afghanistan – during which Walter not only hopes to find his photographer friend, but also himself in the process. 



One of the defining pleasures of THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is how it goes out of its way to reject cynicism in any form, which is a decidedly difficult task considering how deeply cynical filmgoers (and some critics) have become.  The central arc of Walter in the film is that he’s a chronically introverted and shy man that yearns to be the headstrong man of action in his fantasies…only he manages to actually become just that via his quest across the globe to locate the cherished photo.  The fantasy sequences in the film are stunningly realized vignettes, such as a very early sequence – done in one breathtaking shot – that shows Walter plunging into a burning building to save a dog, or another later one that features Walter confronting his hostile boss that just as well could have been a city-destroying super hero battle from THE AVENGERS.  As wickedly enjoyable as these reality-defying scenes are, the real pleasure of the film is witnessing Walter’s transformation in the real world into an affirmative man that takes calculated risks and gambles.    

Balancing the film is its tender – if not a bit under developed – love story between Walter and Cheryl, and Stiller and Wiig have a nice, low-key chemistry that does not draw too much needed attention to itself.  The acting duo has a knack for inhabiting their scenes together and making them simmer with an authentic spontaneity.   Stiller can play internalized, unsure-of-themselves protagonists with the best of them, and he certainly fills Walter’s shows fairly well. Wiig occupies each scene she’s in with a likeable naturalness, and she’s front and center in one of the film’s finer sequences as she sings an acoustic version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, serenading Walter (in his dreams) as he takes his first frightful jump onto a helicopter and into the unknown.  Even when the film tiptoes between moments of make-believe and fact, the core human story of Walter and Cheryl gives the film a grounded sweetness. 

For all of its charms, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER WITTY does falter a bit when it comes to fully defining its title character.  There are moments when the film seems to drop the ball at developing of its hero: For as good as Stiller in the role of Walter, the character seems to traverse the film on the same emotional trajectory.  It is certainly a sublime pleasure to see him become a confident and rejuvenated man throughout the course of the story, but he remains kind of an enigmatic cipher.  Despite the life lessons he’s learned through his travels, Walter does not seem discernibly phased by everything that has transpired for him over the course of his “life changing” journey.  The character, on paper, is a changed person on a spiritual level, but Stiller plays him on the same emotional frequency throughout.  It’s kind of frustrating, because we are left admiring Walter as a character, but left wanting more out of Stiller’s performance.  He never seems to dig psychological deep within the layers of Walter’s psyche as much as he should have. 

Stiller makes up for this, though, by making THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY a stunningly realized travelogue picture.  With the virtuoso cinematography of Stuart Dryburgh, Stiller frames the film with gorgeously shot vistas that have a painterly eye for the expansive geographical vistas that are frequently on display during Walter’s odyssey.  The film certainly has an astonishing visual dynamism that matches the scope of its world spanning narrative; seeing the film makes you truly want to escape your cinema and explore the world, which was, no doubt, one of Stiller’s many noble minded intentions here.  Perhaps the film’s most serenely powerful scene features Walter finally hooking up with Sean, during which time both characters drink in and absorb the natural beauty that surrounds them both.  Powerfully quiet scenes of reflection like this help immerse us in the story better than any of the film’s effects-heavy fantasy sequences.  

Still, I couldn’t shake the overwhelming sensation that THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is just a good film that sort of desperately reaches out for greatness at time, but rarely grabs it.  That, and considering the sheer geographical and narrative scope of the story, the film feels oddly and frustratingly short at 114 minutes.  I can say that THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is a film that I enjoyed without fully admiring it.  It contains appealing performances, marvelous visual flourishes, and its central message of discovering your place in the world while exploring the world certainly will resonate with most.  Oh, and again…the film slaps cynicism in the face, which is kind of nice.

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