If you were to sit down and watch Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street back-to-back, you would discover the difference between a good director and a truly great one.
Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street finds its energy and brilliance through Scorsese's almost primal instincts as a filmmaker who is as equally guided by his gut as he is by the intelligence that allows him to create what his heart envisions.
Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, on the other hand, is a good film that could have so easily become a great one had Stiller's instincts guided him towards getting out of the way of a film that, even when it's really good, too often feels like a personal vanity project where the mechanics of filmmaking take precedence over the creation of a film that lives and breathes Walter Mitty's secret life.
Both are good films, but Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty could have been and should have been so much more.
For those familiar with James Thurber's two-page inspiration, it should come as no surprise that making a full-length feature of the story is along the lines of Peter Jackson stretching out a 300-page book into three wholly unnecessary cinematic adventures. Stiller borrows from Thurber's story only loosely with his Walter Mitty frequently coming off as yet another variation on his career-long foray into portraying likable losers with secret dreams and aspirations. Stiller's best work has always been his less market-friendly work, such as the criminally underrated Greenberg, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty may very well represent Stiller's greatest success at weaving together his blockbuster and indie worlds into something cinematically coherent.
Stiller's Walter is a longtime employee in the photo cataloguing department of Life Magazine, a man with a penchant for daydreaming far greater adventures than he's ever known and fantasizing about Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a newly single accounts payable clerk for the magazine with whom he mostly stumbles through the most basic of civilities in daily work life. In fact, Walter stumbles a lot. It's a fact that doesn't go unnoticed by Ted (Adam Scott), a corporate drone brought in by the recently taken over Life Magazine to clean it up and move it into the digital world.
Yes, this means that many jobs will be lost.
Among the many things that Walter has quietly accomplished, perhaps none is greater than having gained the respect of elusive photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), who has just wired his most recent collection of photos to Walter with the tip that #25 contains the "quintessence of life," a photo deemed to be perfect for what will be Life Magazine's final print cover.
There's only one problem. Walter can't find it.
Under increased pressure to turn the photo, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty abruptly shifts from Walter's inner fantasy life to a non-Thurber inspired devotion to bringing those fantasies to life as Walter embarks on what he deems to be a necessary journey to track down the elusive O'Connell in an effort to track down photograph #25. Traveling first to Iceland, where he deals with sharks and volcanos and skateboarders (Oh my!), then to Greenland, where he deals with Papa John's, Mitty's journey is simultaneously filled with some of the best cinematography of the year, the worst product placement of the year, and a storyline that vacillates between inspirational and insipid.
A gag involving Patton Oswalt as Walter's eHarmony customer service representative is both funny and ridiculous, though the ongoing mention of eHarmony dilutes the scene's more heartwarming elements. Likewise, ongoing references to Walter's early work history are allowed to run amok here. Scenes that should be inspiring instead feel manufactured, such as when Walter climbs the Himalayas or joins in a game of soccer with a group of sherpas.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty should please most of Stiller's fans, though it is neither as zany as some of his best comedy work nor as deeply felt and insightful as some of his best dramatic work. This is a middling film for Stiller, a film that shoots to the moon and lands somewhere among those low-rising stars. D.P. Stuart Dryburgh, a frequent collaborator with Jane Campion, lenses the film beautifully with several scenes just absolutely breathtaking. The film's music is effective, though it is quite clear in virtually every scene that it is meant to inspire.
While the film doesn't always gel together, Stiller's performance is far more earnest than that which is found in Thurber's more satirical writing. While that earnestness occasionally gets in the film's way, it still results in what is likely to be considered this Christmas Day's most family friendly movie viewing option with its equal doses of inspirational, light humor, and good-hearted messages. Kristen Wiig makes the most of a character who is mostly heard by phone after the film's mid-point, while Patton Oswalt does the same with a character who remains unseen for much of the film. Adam Scott convinces as the film's real "baddie," while Sean Penn's brief appearance is quite easily one of the film's highlights.
Opening on Christmas Day, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty neither lives up to its highest potential nor crashes under the weight of its schmaltz and product placement. While I'm not quite convinced yet that Stiller has become a filmmaker guided by his true instincts, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a positive step forward and a solid weaving together of both Stiller's mass-market appeal and his indie artistic pursuits.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic