I’ve created this new category for myself as I am not sure whether I will feel exactly the same after seeing Ben Stiller’s take on Walter Mitty a second time. I might like it more. I doubt I would like it any less. That said…
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is easily Ben Stiller’s best work behind the camera. It’s smooth, smartly imagined, and never (at least in the reality sequences) trying too hard to sell the audience. Stiller is actually quite good in the role. Kristin Wiig is just off-center enough to work very effectively as his object of desire. Supporting turns by Kathryn Hahn and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson were exceptional. And Sean Penn, in an extended cameo, gives a performance that is so clean and simple and quiet that it feels as intimate as anything he has ever done in front of the camera. Cinematography, production design, costuming… all top-notch.
And here is my problem with the film… For me, the movie gets trapped in the Walter Mitty Gimmick, almost all of which is in the first act, and it unbalances the rest of a movie that is very low-key, beautiful, and personal. As I sat in the theater and realized where they were going with the Mitty Gimmick, I started wondering—too late, no doubt— whether they could just cut most of it (probably the most expensive content in the film) right out. Because it’s too big for the rest of the movie and the one overt failure in the film is the lack of strong transitions from Stiller’s Mitty being overwhelmed by the Mitty Gimmick and not using it at all.
Here’s a specific example… which is a SPOILER, although not what I would consider a significant one….
There’s an elevator sequence in which Adam Scott’s Transition Manager is being a jerk and Walter imagines insulting him to his face. We’re good with that. But then it turns into an all-out action sequence. There is nothing wrong, really, with the production of the action sequence. But it is completely out of some other movie on an emotional level. And it never becomes a part of the film’s spirit because as we get into the rest of the film, none of the Mitty Gimmicks really track. The lesson of the movie—to oversimplify—is to be heroic within your nature, not in some cartoon way. All all of the Mitty Gimmicks basically turn into cartoons.
END SPOILER THREAT
As Mitty starts to allow himself to live large in the real world, the film starts to feel, ironically, not unlike Sean Penn’s Into The Wild. The thing Chris McCandless was looking for in Alaska is not unlike what Mitty starts to discover in the world. I am not saying that Stiller achieves what Penn did in that film. But it’s a hell of a lot closer than I would have ever imagined of Stiller.
It’s almost as though Stiller is going through a transition as an artist and he isn’t quite able to give up the ghost. But he should. He’s a better filmmaker without it.
And again, I’m not saying that the Mitty Gimmick should be killed off completely. But that moment when you zone out and the best line you will never say comes to you is very human and that, in this case would have been enough.
Even the opening sequence of the film—nothing spoiling here—in which we meet Walter Mitty in his gray=and-white world. It’s got some beautiful images. But it feels a bit like a gimmick at first. And because of the grandeur of the Mitty Gimmicks, when colors start coming into his life, the audience is not quite as bowled over as intended.
There is some other really wonderful stuff in the film. The idea of using LIFE Magazine as the backdrop is inspired. The cell phone Greek chorus of the E-Harmony guy works really well. The truly exotic locations were very refreshing.
There is a bunch of other stuff I could pick on—mostly transitions—within the film. But the film has a good heart and enough style to get over those cliched or overly-easy moments.
But the first act Mitty Gimmicks haunted the rest of the movie for me… without a payoff. They just left me waiting for some reintegration. But Stiller clearly has bigger fish to fry. And he does a really nice job doing that. I don’t know it’s really Private Ryan Syndrome, where you wait for the entire balance of the film for anything as intense as those first 20 minutes. It’s more like those sequences just feel out of place once you know what the film is really about.
Overall, this movie, in terms of the award season, is still a question mark for me. Critics could willfully go either way. They/We could claim it’s trying too hard for a comic actor/director and pick it apart or they could give it a big hug for marking growth in Stiller’s world view.
Audiences could make it a big hit… which is not to say the “commercial hit” tag that Oscar consultants for other films have tried to hang around its neck. The film is more emotionally ambitious than that. But can it be The Blind Side or a less spiritual Life of Pi for audiences? I can’t discount that possibility.
As noted from the top, I am very curious to see the film again and to see how the Mitty Gimmicks play for me now that I already know where the rest of the film is headed and where the gimmicks are not headed. As I recently experienced with Prisoners, the first viewing left me thinking a lot about the political subtext while the second viewing had me considering the religious subtext. Films with real ideas driving them tend to change with perspective. And this film qualifies in that way.
P.S. The sequence I was really sad not to see was Kathryn Hahn singing “There Are Worse Things I Can Do” on stage.