The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is neither funny, moving nor interesting. Instead, it’s just a giant, disappointing failure.
I should have loved The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. This should have been my movie. I should have been either in tears for 75% of its runtime or completely invested in the titular character and his struggles. See, I daydream. I daydream more than one could deem is healthy. I daydream, if not fantastical scenarios, then scenarios that are rooted in a reality that, nevertheless, could not conceivably happen to me for one reason or another. Hell, on the way from the cinema to the car park, I zoned out to a universe in which I was playing guitar in an Anamanaguchi cover band with a bunch of semi-famous people. I’m pretty sure some youths gave me some funny looks at my blank expression as they rode past on their bikes. Whatever I dream up is far more exciting, interesting and just plain better than the dreary, spineless existence I lead; forever terrified to just once try something scary.
So The Secret Life of Walter Mitty should have been my movie. In the same way that Scott Pilgrim vs. The World legitimised and celebrated a wasted youth of playing videogames and memorising and cataloguing various pieces of 80s/90s pop culture, Walter Mitty’s promotional material was pressing so many of my emotionally stunted young-adult buttons that the finished product just had to end up playing my heartstrings like a godsdamn fiddle. But it didn’t. In fact, Walter Mitty barely held my attention for the hour and fifty minutes in ran for. Despite all of the promise, despite everything in all of the promotional material suggesting that this was going to be my movie, all that Walter Mitty managed to do was disappoint and bore me.
Our hero is the titular Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), a boring everyman who constantly zones out to much more exciting and fantastical realities where he is far more confident and assured and risk-taking than he is in the real world, many of these daydreams revolving around his crush Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). His place of work, Life Magazine, is shutting down and his complete dick of a boss (Adam Scott who is actually way too much of a dick in this role, but we’ll get to that) has charged him with getting a rare photographic negative for the final issue’s front cover. The problem: the negative is nowhere to be found and the photographer responsible for it is quite elusive. Thus sets the stage for Walter to stop daydreaming of incredible adventures and start living incredible adventures!
Yes, I did snark up those last couple of sentences but the fact of the matter is that it’s not that bad of a premise. Kinda generic? Yes. Ripe for cheap emotional manipulation? Of course. Guaranteed to lead to a sappy, supposedly “feel-good” ending? You know it! But you know what? I bought into all of those things when I paid for my ticket. It would be comfort food, but I was all set to gorge on a big tub of the stuff. Except, as is probably clear by now, that isn’t what happened. See, in order for a “feel good” movie to “feel good”, you need to have characters that you can invest in. Beings with depth and dimensions who you enjoy watching and can root for in times of adversity. Walter Mitty’s screenwriter, Steven Conrad, nailed this previously with The Pursuit of Happyness. That could have been an excruciating exercise in a movie cynically tugging on your various heartstrings for two hours in the name of ‘emotions’, but Chris Gardner and his son were fully formed and interesting characters whose eventual triumph over adversity rang true due to them being that.
All of which is the long-winded way of saying that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has no characters and what characters it does have (I counted three, the ones mentioned in the plot synopsis) are dull beyond all comprehension. Look, I get that Walter himself is supposed to be this dull, charisma-less vacuum of blood and organs on legs at the start of the story, a man too scared and unwilling to take even a single plunge into the unknown. I get that. But he’s actually such a personality-less vacuum of blood and organs on legs that he instead feels like a cipher. Even when he does decide to start seizing the day, he’s barely that different from when he starts, the exception being that he can now hold conversations without stammering all of the time. I appreciate the sentiment (in much the same way that Struck By Lightning attempted to showcase realistic teenagers – precocious, selfish and sh*tty) but Mitty himself is a perfect example of why the lead character in a movie needs to have at least some semblance of charisma, otherwise they’re just an idea and it’s near-impossible to relate.
Along similar lines, the film makes a big deal out of Walter’s crush on Cheryl, except that she has no qualities that demonstrate why she, of all the women in the universe, is the one to set his heart aflutter. Aside from looking like Kristen Wiig, Cheryl is basically just a woman. And I don’t mean “she’s an ordinary woman”, I mean “being a woman is pretty much her only character trait”. It’s hard to invest in a romance between two non-entities. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, however, is Walter’s boss, Ted: a.k.a. The Douchiest Douchebag Who Ever Douched. This guy is comically evil, a colossal dick who picks on Walter for no other reason than this is a Hollywood film and we need a villain. He has one-note and Adam Scott bangs on that note so strongly and so relentlessly that I ended up despising the character for being a terrible character, not because he’s a dick who logically can’t get his comeuppance, like the movie wants me to hate him for.
So the script lacks characters, but that is not the only thing it lacks. Despite being a comedy-drama, Walter Mitty lacks anything resembling humour or pathos. Characters sometimes swap lines that I think are supposed to pass for jokes, but lack any of the basic tenants of a good joke (such as timing, set-ups, punch-lines and being funny) and it’s all delivered in the same empty, almost air-less manner as the rest of the film, as if everybody else in the cast is disgusted by these jokes attempting to intrude on their “For Your Consideration” reels. Well, except for the times in which they run and run and run, like when Walter meets a drunk pilot attempting to perform karaoke to “Don’t You Want Me”. I’ll admit to chuckling when the joke started (because half-conscious drunken mumblings to The Human League are always worth a chuckle) but it kept going on and on and it actually ended up killing my earlier fondness for the gag; not helped when the pilot himself ended up being another plot coincidence (more on that later).
And as for the lack of anything that stirs any of the emotions, a script that lacks actual characters is obviously going to suffer whenever it tries to create dramatic scenes. However, the film doesn’t even seem to be trying to tug on any strings, let alone heartstrings. What the film lacks in effort, in makes up for in a total lack of subtlety. The film’s carpe diem “seize every moment and don’t let arseholes take advantage of you” message is so lazily handled, that it will genuinely have a photographer, late in the movie, go (and this is a paraphrase, so forgive me if it’s not totally accurate) “Sometimes I don’t take ‘em. Sometimes a moment is so beautiful, that I choose to continue living in it. And the camera is a distraction of that.”
This is how unsubtle this movie is: Ted saddles Walter with the derogatory nickname “Major Tom” just so that he can reference the opening lyrics to Major Tom (not “Space Oddity” because nobody in the film ever calls it that and, yes, as a music lover this annoyed me dearly); just so that Cheryl can tell Walter that, despite Ted’s appropriation of the song as an insult, the song is actually about a man who is scared to try new things going out there and trying something new and not giving a damn about what others think of him (which is a hell of a misinterpretation of that song, but sure, whatever); just so, when Walter decides not to board a helicopter with the drunk pilot, he can get a daydream of Cheryl singing that song to him in order to convince him to take a risk.
This is how unsubtle this movie is: when Walter decides to head out in search of the negative, in the process stopping daydreaming fantastical adventures and instead going off on real fantastical adventures, “Wake Up” by the Arcade Fire bursts into life! Sure, the lyrics of that song have absolutely nothing to do with Mitty’s situation, but the song is called “Wake Up” and it sounds inspirational, so in it goes! And as he decides to head off on this adventure, the motto of Life magazine pastes itself across the background of wherever Walter is at that point: symbolising how he’s finally embracing the motto of his magazine. This is how unsubtle this movie is: I knew to expect a schmaltz-slathered ending, I did not expect such a schmaltzy, pandering and insultingly patronising ending. It’s so cheap and so lazy, that I didn’t think that even a movie as lazy as Walter Mitty had been for the previous 100 minutes could have the gall to attempt it.
The laziness doesn’t stop there, though, for Walter Mitty’s plot development is almost totally based on contrived coincidences. The mystery of where the negative is and where the photographer is currently residing unfolds almost totally down to pure luck and happenstance. As an example (and this is fairly early on, so it doesn’t really constitute a spoiler), the drunk pilot I was telling you about earlier? Walter inadvertently gets into a fight with him, upon which point he discovers that the guy’s thumb ring is the same as the one in another photo he was given. The photo was taken whilst the guy was piloting his mail helicopter, a mail helicopter that just so happens to deliver to the boat Mitty thinks the photographer’s on and a mail helicopter that just so happens to be ready to deliver another batch of mail to that ship at the exact time Mitty turns up. It’s coincidences atop coincidences and of Mitty turning up at just the right time to advance the plot forward (and this is to say nothing of the reveal of where the photographer is) and there’s too many of them in too short a time frame to keep the reality of the film’s world plausible.
Walter Mitty has one saving grace. Just the one, and that’s its cinematography. Shot on film in an increasingly digital medium, Mitty’s visual palette has a handcrafted warmth to it which imbues the film with what little life it has. Landscape shots, in particular and of which there are loads, are gorgeous and quite soothing and the more constructed shots, like the previously mentioned sequence where Mitty heads to the airport to begin his real-life adventures, play with colours and proxemics well. It’s clear that they’re being constructed for various, often promotional reasons (more on that in a sec), but they’re laid out so well that it doesn’t really matter.
However, my points for the cinematography are immediately revoked when it comes to the film’s CGI which is, in one word, cheap. If, in fact, I could extend my description of the film’s CG to three words, that description would amount to: really, really cheap. Despite the $90 million budget, I have seen better CG in freddiew’s YouTube videos. This wouldn’t be a problem if the CG was limited to maybe one or two instances, but it’s not. It’s copious and that’s to the film’s detriment. An extended fight sequence between Walter and Ted, the one halfway imaginative Mitty daydream the film comes up with, is completely spoilt because it barely even looks daydream-convincing (if you follow me). A set-piece where Walter is attacked by a shark is laughably bad and a sequence where Walter is in a car with a stranger and they’re having to outrun the smoke from an erupting volcano looks like a bad cutscene from an Xbox game circa 2005. There is a moment near the end that should be beautiful, but the all-expenses-spared CG completely dulls the impact of it.
Finally, let’s talk product placement. I am all for real world products being featured in a film or television show, to a degree. Characters can use iPhones or drink Coca-Colas or play on their Xboxes or type using a Macbook if they want to. Hell, it might even make the world a bit more believable and often saves us seeing a film or television show’s writers having to come up with a lazy-as-all-hell parody name (the most aggravating, in my recent memory, being “Mapple” in The Simpsons). When the film stops to linger on a product shot for longer than is necessary or has a character devote a line of dialogue to extolling the virtues of said product, unless done parodically, that’s when a film or television show crosses the line for me. And Walter Mitty crosses that line fairly early on when Todd (played by, of all people, Patton Oswalt), the eHarmony customer service guy who ends up becoming Walter’s life guru for… reasons (it just kinda happens, don’t ask me why), stops an otherwise slightly natural conversation to state how “eHarmony has a complex matching algorithm that helps match people up with their perfect partners with a much higher success rate than other dating websites”.
I don’t like being sold to, at the movies. It’s bad enough that I typically have to sit through 20 minutes of adverts before I even get to the trailers before a film (which themselves are just adverts), I don’t want a film to suddenly stop and attempt to sell me on a dating website and why this dating website is better than all other dating websites. The rest of the product placement in the film is clunky and lazy, but doesn’t go anywhere near as far into straight “Let me take a moment of your time to tell you about these wonderful deals”. Papa Jon’s is brought up frequently for reasons way too stupid to spoil (including a special Icelandic branch because… reasons) and McDonalds and their slogan are specifically name-checked later on to show just how heartless and stupid Ted really is, but that’s about it. It’s still way more than average, however, and that one eHarmony line (which is dropped within the opening 4 minutes, no less) ended up inadvertently drawing my attention to just how many name-brand products are featured in this film and it was distracting enough to seriously knock down the film a couple of notches from the get go.
Now, of course, I could just be being too harsh on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. After all, one is likely to be a bit tougher on something that they were looking forward to being disappointing. For what it’s worth, the surprisingly packed cinema screen I was watching the film with loved it. On the other hand, this crowd laughed at a ram. The ram didn’t do anything. The camera in the scene just cut to a close-up of the ram that was previously established to be in the scene and people started laughing. A fair few people started laughing, in fact.
Take that interesting little factoid for what it’s worth, because it’s far more interesting and entertaining than The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was. There are far funnier films worth your time, far more moving films worth your time and far more interesting films worth your time. Spend your money elsewhere.