DVD Review - The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Whereas Stranger Than Fiction is about a writer who imagines a fantasy world that comes to life, this film is about an assets manager at a magazine who imagines various fantasies that feel like they come to life but don't. His fantasies are merely a crutch or simple escapism.
Written by Steve Conrad, this film is based on James Thurber's story of the same name. Thurber's Walter Mitty had his fantasies and they were escapism or a way of self-aggrandizing. Thurber's Walter Mitty was also married, his presence in effect commenting on married life and the ruts that some men of working-class or even middle-class status fall. Conrad's Walter Mitty isn't married but what he's commenting on seems to be two opposing or two mutually exclusive ideas.
Ben Stiller stars as the titular character, an assets manager at Life magazine. His main responsibility is overseeing the photographs or rather the negatives submitted by photographers. One photographer in particular is Sean O'Connell, played by Sean Penn, a man without an address or any permanent roots.
Sean is an adventurer, a constant world traveler who lives off the land and roughs it mostly. In a way, Walter lives vicariously through Sean and envies his exciting life. Walter sets out on a journey to find Sean, which pushes Walter out his shell. Through the use of music and how director Ben Stiller shoots things so majestically, we're supposed to be thrilled with Walter's adventure, but at the end it's learned that the adventure was pointless.
The first half of the movie has Walter going into life-like fantasies because he doesn't have the courage to express himself, stand up for himself or go after things as he would like. The situations that are supposed to explicate his lack of courage don't really explicate anything. On the surface, he might seem like a boring or a timid guy, but once he starts talking to Cheryl Melhoff, played by Kristen Wiig, it becomes obvious that Walter is actually interesting. Walter's ability to skateboard and do tricks with it are an indication of this.
The penultimate image of this movie, which is the reveal of the last magazine cover, underscores that Walter is interesting and he doesn't need to become an adventurer like Sean. If the movie had not set Walter out on the road for real, if the movie had kept him in the city where he just kept having his fantasies, then the movie's point in the end would have had more of a punch.
Instead, the movie also wants Walter to be out there on the road jetting to Greenland or trekking to the Himalayas. Because Stiller is a comedic filmmaker, for him it's always about the joke. Having Walter travel all the way he travels only for it ultimately to be unnecessary is a joke that Stiller apparently liked. It's not like The Wizard of Oz (1939) where by the end he realizes "there's no place like home" or rather there's no one like Walter Mitty.
Yes, there's the revelation that he had the solution the whole time, but the journey of Dorothy isn't totally invalidated by the end. The journey itself has a value. It meant something. Here, Walter's journey doesn't seem to have value or really mean anything. The fantasies go away in the second half of the movie. I wish they hadn't.
Otherwise, the film is beautiful. It's gorgeously shot. His compositions are well done, so much that the visuals elevate the movie above its writing flaws. The fantasies are fun or funny, as well as utilizing great effects. The music here is great. The David Bowie song "Space Oddity" is used triumphantly, and original songs by Swedish singer José González and his band Junip are perfect.
Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 54 mins.