Review | ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ Should Remain a Secret

walter mitty1

If asking women out is difficult for you at the age of 45, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty just might be the best movie you’ve ever seen. Ostensibly the story of a daydreaming cubicle dweller who embarks on an epic journey to retrieve a missing photo, Ben Stiller’s gorgeous new screensaver travels incredibly far to go an extremely short distance – namely, earning the courage to confess his interest in a coworker.

Reworking James Thurber’s 1939 short story into a wake-up call for middle-aged white men to stop dreaming and start living, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is weakly life-affirming, the kind of empty-headed cinematic platitude that mistakes irresponsibility for adventure and accomplishment for meaning.

Stiller plays Mitty, an archivist at Life entrusted with negatives meant by photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) to grace the magazine’s final cover. When a key image goes missing, Mitty is pressured by his boss Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) to turn it over, even as layoffs begin decimating the publication’s ranks.

Enlisting the help of a company accountant, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), to find O’Connell’s whereabouts, Mitty embarks on a frantic journey across the globe to find the shutterbug and retrieve the photo. But as he finds himself in increasingly improbable circumstances, Mitty’s daydreams about O’Connell’s life become real life-threatening experiences, and his hunt for the image quickly transforms into a search for his inner adventurer.

walter mitty2The premise of the original short story is that an ordinary man escapes into his imagination to get away from the mundane experiences in everyday life – and honestly, at a time when unemployment is rampant and wealth disparity is so enormous, that’s an idea that could be amazingly resonant to many people. But Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad reinvent Mitty as a do-nothing dreamer who unwittingly embarks on the kinds of adventures he previously experienced only vicariously through O’Connell’s photography.

Where that change eventually falls short is in portraying the character’s thrill-seeking as a sort of spiritual empowerment, largely ignoring the physical and financial dangers of dropping a couple of thousand dollars on a flight around the world to literally swim with sharks for a single negative that likely will not save his job. Moreover, the character’s “adventures” are largely superficial set pieces that do nothing to reinforce the insularity of his life, favoring beautiful imagery and glib punch lines instead of something more emotionally meaningful.

Notwithstanding how mostly horrible the product placement (Papa John’s, eHarmony) is, the film does remarkably little with the idea of Life shutting down its presses, except to underscore the inexorable advent of the digital age, and of course the shameless – and heartless – profiteering of corporations. The idea that a corporation’s employees are the lifeblood of its business is hardly new or original, and Stiller turns his seemingly inevitable termination (it’s abundantly clear from frame one that nobody’s surviving layoffs) into a moment of entirely pointless self-actualization that means nothing and accomplishes nothing.

Meanwhile, there’s an ongoing obsession Mitty has with Cheryl, whom he only has the courage to talk to in his daydreams (the mountain-climbing scene from the trailers is an example of how he tries to woo her in his head). While the story could have been about how he goes on a grand adventure only to realize he can get what he wants – a date with Cheryl – literally by asking for it, Stiller diffuses his epiphany into about five separate moments of realization, without any of them really seeming to come naturally from the previous one.

Ultimately, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is probably for people who find Forrest Gump profound, and equate who its message to “you can do anything no matter where you come from or who you are” – which is phony, because Gump dumb-lucks his way through life without ever being a real agent of anything except survival. While I realize that sounds condescending, it’s only meant to underscore the misguidedness of the movie’s premise, and the intoxicating confusion of Mitty’s execution – and ultimately feels like the sort of idea only someone who never really struggled could promote.

Should you go on a whirlwind adventure that empties your bank account and accelerates your unemployment, but leaves you with a great story to tell, and a date? The Secret Life of Walter Mitty says yes. Let’s hope there’s a sequel, so it can tell us how to pay for it.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens Wednesday.

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Comments

  • AirDave

    And here I was hoping for something closer to Thurber than what Danny Kaye “scatted” years ago. I thought the point of Thurber’s story was pretty obvious, as stated early on in the review: we all want to rise above our ordinary lived and do something heroic. Sometimes the only opportunity is in our imagination.

  • DarthTigris

    Yeah, your complete misunderstanding projection of what Forrest Gump ‘meant’ has now invalidated this review for me. Time to head to Rotten Tomatoes instead.

  • RAP

    Dude, Forrest Gump is a meditation on whether fate exists and shapes our destiny or if everything is just random happenstance

  • http://sdelmonte.livejournal.com/ Simon DelMonte

    A lost negative. Yes, because no magazine has digitized its collections yet.

  • Jeff

    How ironic that this review should appear in Comic Book Resources. Comic books are ALL about suspending disbelief and living vicariously through the characters… EXACTLY what the new adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty does. As a side note, if comic book fans took your soapbox preaching about financial responsibility to heart, there would no longer be comic books because no one would be buying them… you know… because they’d be practicing financial responsibility.

  • Happily LS

    Wow, a Forrest Gump fan. You don’t see that everyday.

    It wasn’t a very good movie and I’ll never forgive it for stealing the Oscar from Pulp Fiction.

  • Todd Gilchrist

    That intepretation is what I have hear verbatim from fans of the film. Nevertheless, if you’re interested in the film, I encourage you to see it — this is my reaction, and it shouldn’t deter you from checking it out.

  • Todd Gilchrist

    You’ll forgive me for feeling like a movie about a guy about to lose his job shouldn’t advocate him dropping $3000 on a flight to Greenland. If his adventures were metaphors for the real challenges he was facing in real life, it might have resonated more strongly with me, but they’re frivolous escapism that doesn’t help anyone — especially since it’s meant to inspire people to action.

  • Happily LS

    Based on Ben Stiller’s usual output and the rom-com sounding plot, I’m inclined to give the reviewer the benefit of the doubt. Unless it somehow appears on everyone’s must-see list, but somehow I doubt it.

  • Snoopy

    Todd Gilchrist is a terrible writer. Had to re-read half his sentences to make any sense of them…

  • SchnitzeyPretzelpants

    He’s actually an exceptionally good writer, and miles above the caliber we have any reasonable expectation of finding on a site like this – and no that is NOT a back-handed compliment to him.

    The fact you had to re-read it says more about your ability to comprehend a well-structured and nuanced thought.

    I don’t know whether I will agree with Todd’s review or not, but his review is well-written by any standard I happen to hold dear or have been taught over the years.

    My only objection is where it strays into the realm of the moral-judgement. But I’d have to see the film to decide if that bothers me or not. It’s merely that on the face of his assessment, and without having seen the movie, all I know is that I think the one area I still have a measure of romanticism left is in the notion of “chucking it all, and pursuing you bliss” – mind you I haven’t done so because of the reasons Todd stresses.

    On the Forest Gump comments, I have to say that while I loved that film in my 20′s I now feel that the film embraced and propagated so many “values” of the Reagan/Bush era, it makes me want to hurl now when I think of it.

    Disagree with me? Look at how the free-spirited and soul-searching character – Robin Wright – is the one that at every turn gets the shitty end of the stick, and compare that to how the unquestioning, and therefore (if only by extension) un-developing Forrest essentially has a good life.

    Not saying that was the intention of the writers or Zemeckis, but if it wasn’t, then they have unwittingly created a great “anthem” to neo-conservative values.

  • Brian from Canada

    That meditation requires consideration from its protagonist. Forrest Gump has none. The movie is a series of happenstance successes that Forrest neither cares for nor really comprehends that act as interludes between his meeting the girl he wants to marry. It’s an early presentation of asberger’s syndrome on film without the acknowledgement by anyone that Forrest is borderline autistic — something that Hollywood and the world were aware of thanks to the (misrepresented but trying) Rain Man.

    But it was a technical masterpiece and that seems to be what Walter Mitty is aiming for: a visually beautiful film that takes its protagonist to special locales to accomplish special things without really aiming to do them nor really focusing on them and taking them in for what they truly are. In that, the comparison is apt.

    Which is completely sad if you’ve read the original short story. The original short story’s Mitty is someone who dreams of change but has neither the willpower NOR the change in situation to affect it. He’s the serf; he’s the peon; and he will always be. That’s what makes Mitty to special a story: he’s got a charm that no one really understands except the reader.

  • lewis4510

    I can tell it’s a forgettable film just from the trailer.

  • tapwaterisbetter

    Thank you for the review. The movie has looked interested from the trailer, but I have been hesitant. A lot of the points you made, I agree with and it could have been something different. I may see it as I like Ben Stiller, but I saw the Watch recently and had a hard time getting through it.

  • tapwaterisbetter

    There’s more than Superheroes in comics and for your side note, people should take his advice on financial responsibility. Don’t buy that comic or collectible if you need the money very soon.

  • tapwaterisbetter

    The review was clear, I got his point easily. Did your browser have trouble loading it?

  • Poochy

    Forrest Gump was not autistic, nor did he have Aspergers – he was intellectually impaired. And borderline at that.

    Anyone who has worked in the disability field wil tell you that Dustin Hoffman’s perfromance in Rain Man was amazing. One of the best representations of autism i have ever seen. That’s coming from someone who has worked in the disability field for 20 years and counting.

  • DarthTigris

    I’ve seen far more fans than not.

    It didn’t steal anything. That year there were 3 movies that should’ve won best picture. Shawshank was incredible.

  • Psycho Rockter

    “If asking women out is difficult for you at the age of 45, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty just might be the best movie you’ve ever seen.”

    C’mon, this is just an odd idea to put out there. Try to examine the movie more than the audience. Plus this is a strange opening like for what we know is a negative review from the article title. It’s like you’re saying “Note that I don’t like this movie, and am quite handy with the ladies.” =P

    Just saying, especially considering this is a comic book site, a home for geek culture, let’s not treat people who might be shy or awkward in love like they’re a completely different audience. Taste in film is a lot more subjective with more caveats and subtleties than that.

    “While I realize that sounds condescending” – The review has a lot of that.

  • DarthTigris

    ‘Some’ fans of the film. I’m curious if it was your take though.

    My thoughts about what the movie is saying have varied some over the years, but what I always got from it was that the most important and significant aspects of our lives are our relationships. For all the amazing things he experienced, he always had his loved ones close in heart and mind and was driven by his loyalty to them, no matter what others told him was important. Because of that, it’s actually quite a sad movie. The things most important to him he continues to lose throughout his life. I think when my mom died of cancer the movie took on a entire different level of meaning for me. I actually find it hard to watch now, but I digress.

    Unlike Gump, Mitty sounds like it’s quite polarizing. Reviews are very divided. I’m in no rush.

  • Happily LS

    If you don’t think Pulp Fiction deserved the Oscar your opinion doesn’t mean anything.

  • DarthTigris

    I saw Jenny differently. She was an abused child that never got the help she really needed and made a lot of bad decisions in life because of it. “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks”, you know?

    And Forrest’s life is anything but good. How many times was he genuinely happy? All he wanted to do was be with the ones he loved and life (and death) constantly took him away from them. It’s not really a feel good movie if you pay attention.

  • AngelsandDemons1

    How dare you say Forrest Gump was intellectually impaired…he wasn’t a smart man but he knows what love is…

  • SchnitzeyPretzelpants

    I don’t think your ‘take’ and my take are mutually exclusive though – you are right, but so am I.

    She didn’t get a ‘break’ but was also the very embodiment of the Left-wing-searcher.

    Likewise, I don’t disagree with your assessment on Forrest, however – it’s also very true that he does (maybe inadvertently) completely embody neo-conservative values. At least the aspect of never questioning certain key aspects of life.

    Jenny was effectively punished for being a seeker and trying to escape the small town norms. Forrest was sort of rewarded for never questioning them.

    I see I wrote above that I want ‘to hurl’ when I see Forrest Gump, that was rather over-stated of me, because in spite of what I say here, there are some scenes in the film that I still find genuinely touching, such as when Forrest – in really his almost only moment of any true self-awareness – almost breaks down in when asking Jenny if his son is like him, in terms of mental faculties.

  • RAP

    “I don’t know if we each have a destiny or if we’re all floating around accidental, like on a breeze. But I think maybe its both, maybe both is happening at the same time. ” — Forrest Gump

  • Todd Gilchrist

    FWIW, I’d never disparage or try to take away from another person’s individual or personal reaction to a film — and if you like Forrest Gump, I’d never try to disavow you of that feeling. I personally find it to be hollow and full of superficial emotional payoffs, all triggered by obvious pop culture hallmarks. I don’t like that the sins of the world and everything bad gets projected onto Jenny. Again, I’m not saying this to change your mind, just to answer your question about my reaction to it. Eric Roth wrote that and Benjamin Button, and I prefer BB because of possibly some of the reasons you prefer Gump.

  • Todd Gilchrist

    I wouldn’t write for this site or devote my lie to writing about entertainment if I thought escapism was automatically or even mostly a bad thing. But this is a movie by rich people who don’t know what it’s like to struggle financially — or they’ve forgotten if they ever did — telling audiences to live their life to the fullest, no matter the literal or figurative cost — and that I find irresponsible.

  • Todd Gilchrist

    Ha ha, rockter, if only I were “handy with the ladies.” What I meant is that the film seems to equate this guy’s globe-trotting journey and asking a girl out, and if they’re equal challenges to you, as I admit I don’t believe they should be, then this might resonate with you. I completely agree I shouldn’t review the audience or judge other people’s reactions. But I do question who will find meaning in this character’s journey, and then why they find it, and what it means. I honestly mean no disrespect against anyone who might be socially uncomfortable or awkward. But in the way that I think a movie like 500 Days of Summer blames the female character even though it’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character who never seems to realize that he’s trying to make her into something she said she NEVER could be, the character in this film seems to be looking at challenges in his life in ways that don’t really take responsibility for himself and his behavior, which I do think is a much healthier, more positive and more constructive message.

  • DarthTigris

    I have yet to see Benjamin Button, but I’ve read that it is the antithesis to Forrest Gump in various ways. I look forward to seeing it someday (Netflix streaming again …?) though it too seems to be a polarizing movie.

    For the record, I think the Gump analogy detracted from your review. As a burgeoning freelance writer, I note such things in the hopes of honing my craft. It did stimulate a lot of discussion in these comments, but that’s not what this review is about. It ended up being quite the distraction.

  • SchnitzeyPretzelpants

    Not to digress – and 500 Days of Summer is hardly a film that I cherish – but if that’s your take-away from that film, I have to suggest that you missed that, that was the very point the film was trying to make: that JGL’s character had been mistaken all along.

    I don’t think it was ever trying to blame his ex. I do think she was very much the sort of woman many of us have ended up with, and therefore touches a raw nerve, but I don’t feel that we were supposed to blame her. To me it was clear that Levitt’s journey was about coming to the very realization you speak of.

  • Todd Gilchrist

    A fair assessment.

  • Fay

    First of all, you misundertood the movie’s message so badly that it it hard to read the rest of anything you have to say. On top of that, you compared it with Forrest Gump, that coincidentally you also misunderstood the message. If you go to the movies to see things literally, sorry but you have a problem. Better you stay home watching the news…

  • eddieanonymous

    The SLOWM was terrible. It had a funny beginning and just gave up after that. Stiller could have added more comedy to lift the movie up to average, but I give it a grade of D. I liked Cable Guy, Along Came Polly, …many of Stiller’s movies, but this one bombs.

  • Blah

    People project themselves on thongs.

    Your bitching about forest gump and walter mitty shows how ignorant , stupid and retarded you are

  • andypants1989

    I think you kind of missed the point somewhat. It’s not about him asking the girl out. You have to look at the reason he couldn’t ask her out. He didn’t have any self-esteem because he felt like he hadn’t done anything interesting or important in his life. He goes on this adventure and gains a great deal of self-respect, but the ultimate message of the movie at the end, when he sees himself on the magazine and realises that he was actually doing something worthwhile and important all of this time. It’s just that no-ne, even he himself, recognised it. If anything the point the film is to encourage you to identify the value within yourself, not to go on some outrageous adventure. A more cynical interpretation of the film of course, would be that’s telling it’s audience that it’s okay to be a worker-drone, in an effort to keep ordinary people docile, obedient and unambitious and to prevent them from going out of their comfort zones.

  • ArchangelX

    Spot on. I thought it was a wonderful movie…it feels almost like the reviewer is missing the ability enjoy simple yet dramatic videography when coupled with a positive, feel good story. Sad.