I’ve always been fond of films that develop from inside a character’s head and try to really mess with yours in the process. To participate in the psychology of a character’s journey through the sparks of his or her mind is insanely addictive in the way that it transports you into a new world while staying grounded in the reality of the mundane. One of the master’s of this craft is Charlie Kaufman, who has taken us on several twisted mind trips in films like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s a shame, then, that Mr. Kaufman was not part of Ben Stiller’s attempts at jumping around someone’s head in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, because if he had, I’m sure the film would have been one excellent, metaphorical daydream rather than just a very good attempt at artistry.
Stiller stars as Walter Mitty, a man who works an unfulfilled job at Life Magazine and hasn’t done much of anything else in life except for what he accomplishes in the daydreams that have all but taken over his life. One day, when he can’t find the negative of a picture the company seeks to use on the cover of the final print edition of the magazine, he leaves his dreams behind and takes to the air, the sea and the mountains to track down the photographer and reclaim his life.
Ben Stiller directed Walter Mitty as well, and based on his previous work (having directed the hilarious Tropic Thunder and the underrated The Cable Guy), it’s safe to say that Stiller is a very capable filmmaker. The film is shot beautifully, with just the right amount of wit, genuine heart and picturesque landscapes that shine with extraordinary wonder. Stiller takes pride in crafting a world that is so vast and—like Walter himself in a lot of ways—empty, that everything about Walter’s journey becomes breathtaking in its infinite confinement.
What’s lacking is Stiller’s ability to inspire the same magnificent beauty in the characters that inhabit Walter’s isolated world. Other than Sean Penn’s worldly zen photographer, the people that interact with Walter are all quite dull and stagnant. When we’re asked to believe that Walter is smitten with Kristen Wiig’s Cheryl Melhoff, is it wrong for us to want some life behind her beauty.
That’s not to say that Wiig doesn’t develop a nicely drawn character in Cheryl; she’s quiet, humble and a loving mother. But she is so passive at times, it makes her a little too dull for someone seeking to break away from monotony. Stiller makes it clear in the context of the film that Cheryl is guiding his soul throughout his journey, so by making her so ordinary, the sense of wonder Walter feels for her leaves a lot to be desired
The same can be said for the rest of the main supporting cast, who are all underutilized in their respective roles. Adam Scott as the man who is putting an end to Life Magazine is given little else to do but be smug and arrogant; Shirley McClaine as Walter’s mother is only there to spout off a few lines of sage advice; and Kathryn Hahn as Walter’s chaotic sister isn’t allowed to contrast Walter’s serene loneliness enough to add depth to their relationship.
And even though Patton Oswalt (who plays a technical assistant at eHarmony as if Walter is a the only friend he’ll ever have) is given some room to riff, the timing of some of his comic relief are both spot on and at the same time ridiculously misplaced—if anyone has ever used a normal cell phone thousands of feet up in the Himalayas, please let me know. There are a few nice moments with all of these characters, but they aren’t fleshed out enough to see them as anything but plot devices.
The movie is based on a short story by James Thurber, and I have to admit, I’ve never read the story or seen the original film adaptation, so this adventure is brand new to me. And though the idea of witnessing a daydreamer find the courage to live his life is a great way to spend a couple of hours, I was hoping for the chance to get inside Walter’s head a bit more than we’re allowed.
I relate to Walter, and on some level, I’m sure a lot of us do. I’ve had my share of daydreams, or thoughts about what I might say to someone only to chicken out—but that’s natural. It’s inherent in us as humans to be cautious when dealing with our fears and the unknown, so connecting with Walter on a much deeper level—one which allows us to believe that we, too, can become more than what we’ve allowed ourselves to become—comes quite easily.
But if you’ve seen the trailers for the film, the majority, if not all, of Walter’s daydreams were showcased within them, so there are seemingly no surprises left when it comes to watching the film. If Stiller would have spent a bit more time on Walter’s daydreams, or in the very least, more substance within the dreams, I believe the mind trip that we could have shared with Walter as he sought the courage to live his dreams would have been much more delightful.
That doesn’t mean the dreams were bad; anything but. The one dream, in which Walter gets into a fistfight with Adam Scott’s Ted Hendricks over a Stretch Armstrong doll that takes us surfing along the streets of Manhattan is marvelously well-done in its fierce competitiveness and sheer delight in absurdity. There simply wasn’t enough of this style of direction and playfulness throughout the rest of the film.
I completely understand where Ben Stiller was trying to take the film; giving it a dreamlike quality even when we’re not inside the dream was a good choice. But because the characters that drive his desires weren’t as captivating as Walter’s vision, the sense of true wonderment that we’re supposed to feel gets a little lost in translation.
My Grade: B+
Next week, I will be running down the top ten favorite films (and the bottom five worst bombs) that I had the pleasure (and the misfortune) of seeing in 2013.