Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn
Genre: Comedy/ Drama/ Action/ Fantasy
Walter Mitty (Stiller) is a negative asset manager at Life magazine who is always daydreaming of epic scenarios surrounding his rather mundane life, but never actually really does anything about them. Walter and his fellow co-workers learn that Life magazine is to be shut down, and for its final issue will be an image from legendary but elusive photographer Sean O’Connell (Penn) that apparently captures the ‘quintessence’ of Life Magazine. O’Connell always sent his pictures to Walter, but in the pictures that he has sent Walter, that picture (no. 25) is missing. Using O’Connell’s other pictures as obscure clues; Walter decides to finally go on a real global adventure to track down O’Connell and this missing picture that will be an experience beyond his wildest dreams.
As he approaches his half century, it most definitely seems that Stiller whose big box office hits have been goofy or crowd pleasing comedies, really wants to be taken seriously now with his latest offering as man both in front of and behind the camera. The Royal Tenenbaums aside, his more serious films such as Greenberg and Your Friends and Neighbours hardly set the box office alight. Well, now he is armed with a big budget and a film that attempts to delicately merge crowd pleasing schmaltz, big budget set pieces, indie style drama and some inspirational message at its heart. It is an admirable attempt, and for me The Secret Life of Walter Mitty only just about works.
As lead actor, director and producer, this is obviously a passion project for Stiller with a real personal feel to everything. However it does seem he sometimes forgets that he is making a mainstream film ($90million budget is mainstream) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty often verges into self indulgent self-help video. That said, it still has enough heart and good intentions to emerge as a very watchable, if slightly forgettable film.
If the very cheesy go-and-live-your-life narrative may potentially put people off (I was cynical), behind the camera Stiller certainly has a great visual eye. The wide variety of shots are impressively put together, adding to the feeling of mind blowing adventure once Walter goes off on his quest. Capturing the beauty of Icelandic scenery (including an erupting volcano) and the Afghanistan Himalayas with long, beautiful shots, this is only enhanced by Stuart Dryburgh’s beautiful cinematography that seems to focus on and emphasise primary colours (especially the blue of our character’s eyes).
The set pieces themselves (both imaginary and real) are also directed and edited with verve and energy, and are genuinely thrilling to watch, the imaginary also containing a good sense of humour. However it is what holds these all together that not only risks the narrative feeling episodic, but often provides anti climax. The more dialogue heavy scenes do feel slow and over written; crowd pleasing schmaltz can be fine, but at least get on with it! Regular Stiller composer Theodore Shapiro’s score is conventional verging on patronising, with epic strings for more dramatic scenes and slow pieces for the more emotional scenes which once again adds to the feeling of TSLOWM being far more commercial than it perhaps wishes it was. The ending itself is predictable and risks anti climax, but as cheesy as it is, the final scene is in my view genuinely moving.
Perhaps it may be partly down to his natural passion for this film and not necessarily actual good acting, but Stiller himself gives a perfectly suited performance. He does have the emotional range for a role like this (unlike Adam Sandler for example) and gives us a relatable protagonist. Kristen Wiig is an excellent casting decision as this is the kind of kooky and likeable character that she has perfected for some time now. Meanwhile Sean Penn earns one of his easier pay packets by just sitting on a mountain and looking rugged for one scene.
Made with genuine passion and heart, but perhaps compromised by trying to be too many things and appeal to too many crowds to get its budget back, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a very watchable easy going film, but ultimately far more forgettable than perhaps Ben Stiller had wished.