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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) Movie Review

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) movie poster The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Theatrical Release: December 25, 2013 / Running Time: 115 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Ben Stiller / Writers: Steve Conrad (screen story & screenplay), James Thurber (short story)

Cast: Ben Stiller (Walter Mitty), Kristen Wiig (Cheryl Melhoff), Shirley MacLaine (Edna Mitty), Adam Scott (Ted Hendricks), Kathryn Hahn (Odessa Mitty), Patton Oswalt (Todd Maher), Adrian Martinez (Hernando), Σlafur Darri Σlafsson (Helicopter Pilot), Sean Penn (Sean O'Connell), Jonathan C. Daly (Tim Naughton), Terence Bernie Hines (Gary Mannheim), Marcus Antturi (Rich Melhoff), Paul Fitzgerald (Don Proctor), Joey Slotnick (Retirement Home Administrator), Kai Lennox (Phil Melhoff), Conan O'Brien (Himself), Andy Richter (Himself)

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Ben Stiller hasn't had a resounding live-action hit in several years, a fact he sets out to change in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,
which also happens to be his fifth film as director. With a Christmas Day opening and a budget of $90 million, big things are expected for this remake twenty years in the making.

Walter Mitty differs from its competition. Its lack of even a single Golden Globes nomination revealed that, despite the timing and its inclusion in the National Board of Review's annual top ten list, this is not a serious award contender like many of this year's other new releases. Nor is it really a family film or an effects extravaganza, two labels worn by Stiller's successful last late December debut, Night at the Museum, and which can also be applied to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Regardless of Stiller's past, Walter Mitty isn't even much of a comedy, jokes being mild and scattered through this soul-searching adventure of self-discovery that poses little threat to Anchorman 2's laugh count.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) holds a clementine pie while daydreaming at his workplace in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

Mitty (Stiller) is a negative asset manager at Life magazine, an institution that has just been sold. Layoffs are feared and executives are brought in to supervise the transition from print to online. One big final issue of the magazine is planned. Its cover photo seems certain to be one submitted and personally recommended by Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), a revered nomadic photojournalist whose work Walter has edited for years without direct communication. Alas, the shot in question is the only one missing from O'Connell's latest mailing. Walter tries to piece together where O'Connell might be by inspecting the neighboring photos.

The search for the missing negative sets the 42-year-old Mitty off on an adventure to Greenland, Iceland, and beyond. That is uncharacteristic for the milquetoast New Yorker who can't think of a single thing other than a visit to Phoenix to include on his online dating profile. Walter can barely work up the nerve to virtually wink at Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), the newly-divorced co-worker he's crushing on, let alone approach her in person. Of course, Walter is prone to zoning out while imagining himself performing heroic deeds. The odyssey to locate O'Connell, who's so old school he doesn't even have a phone, gives Walter a chance to experience real thrills that are not only in his mind.

While far from a complete reinvention, Walter Mitty does offer Stiller a change of gears from his usual comfort zone. Apart from offbeat collaborations with Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, Stiller has strictly been a mainstream comedy guy since becoming a household name around the turn of the century. He's had as much success in the genre as virtually anyone else since then, though he's had his share of flops, too. Obviously, this still qualifies as a comedy, but it's not one that will have moviegoers slapping their knees or re-enacting their favorite bits, like Stiller's past outings have. The biggest laugh at my screening came from a random Benjamin Button homage/spoof that would feel more at home in Tropic Thunder, had it been released a year later.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) treks to the far corners of the Earth to find the famed photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn).

Stiller doesn't try too hard to give the title character personality. Walter is a full-time spectator and daydreamer,
a passive reactor to others in his life (which include "Parks and Rec"'s Adam Scott as a douchey, oddly-bearded transition overseer and Shirley MacLaine as his briefly-seen mother). His past -- as a mohawked skateboarding teen and Papa John's employee (one of an intrusive number of product placements) -- doesn't gel at all with what we see, a fact the film seems to explain with references to his father's death. We don't really understand why Walter is the way he is or why he should work up the nerve to charm Cheryl (she's boring and into detective novels). We do appreciate why he must find O'Connell and the missing photo, whose description as "the quintessence of life" renders the reveal anticlimactic and dumb.

These issues are probably ones that challenged Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness, The Weather Man), the lone credited screenwriter, and the many others before him who tried to update James Thurber's 1939 short story for modern times. This film was conceived all the way back in 1994 as a Jim Carrey vehicle that Ron Howard was attached to direct for New Line. Amidst numerous rewrites, the rights changed hands. Steven Spielberg agreed to direct in the early 2000s, but he would bow out, along with DreamWorks and, shortly after a vision of a Mark Waters-directed Owen Wilson crumbled, its then-distributor Paramount. Acquiring it in turnaround, Fox landed Mike Myers, then Sacha Baron Cohen with Pirates of the Caribbean's Gore Verbinski helming. Finally, they decided to put Stiller on both sides of the camera, as commercially and comedically promising a combination as any previously foreseen.

The results, though, are decidedly modest. The goodwill Stiller has earned is strictly from comedy and given how few laughs there are, it doesn't feel like he's doing his job to the best of his abilities here. Sure, this is better than the regression his fellow noughties Frat Packers Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson indulged in on the pitiful The Internship, directed by Stiller's frequent collaborator Shawn Levy. But Walter Mitty feels more like a Levy movie than one from the director/star of Tropic Thunder and Zoolander. Perhaps it's Stiller's screenwriting that is most missed.

While Fox should fare better than they did on their last big budget Christmas Day release, Gulliver's Travels, I am doubtful they have a hit on their hands in this, not when bigger laughs, more thrilling fantasy, and simply superior films are playing at the same multiplex.

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Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Saving Mr. Banks • American Hustle • The Wolf of Wall Street | Directed by Ben Stiller: Tropic Thunder
Ben Stiller: Night at the Museum • Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian • The Heartbreak Kid • Greenberg • The Royal Tenenbaums
Kristen Wiig: Girl Most Likely • Date Night • Friends with Kids • Whip It • Adventureland • Ghost Town
Gulliver's Travels • Bedtime Stories • The Internship • Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

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Reviewed December 25, 2013.



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