Viewers Encouraged to Bring Tightly Sealed Barf Bags to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
There’s a lot of things $90 million dollars can do: rebuild countries, cure diseases, buy you $90 million dollars worth of breadsticks from Domino’s. Far from pursuing any of these noble aims, Twentieth Century Fox chose to do everything wrong and instead produced The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (dir. Ben Stiller). Now, I’m not opposed to studios spending obscene wads of cash when the film achieves artistic excellence or features Jennifer Lawrence simply breathing. But “Mitty” is just another movie in a string of movies of this year (Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis, Dallas Buyers Club) about a failed male hero who discovers himself by going on a half-baked spiritual odyssey. Just because a movie belongs to an overpopulated genre doesn’t make it worthless – Nebraska and Inside Llewyn Davis are both terrific, substantial films, and Dallas Buyers Club features Jared Leto in a bathrobe. Yet, when the hero is Ben Stiller in a beige windbreaker, and when that spiritual odyssey is second-rate skateboarding in a third-world country, you kind of wish Hollywood had gone with the breadsticks.
At the beginning of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Mitty (Stiller) is a shy office drone who struggles with dating and completing basic human sentences, quirks we are supposed to find charming. He works as a “negative assets manager” for Life magazine, which is in the process of downsizing and going online thanks to evil corporate technocrat Adam Scott (technology is scary! The internet is bad! The only people you can ever trust/bone are sensitive artist losers!). Stiller harbors a secret e-Harmony crush on officemate Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), an actress who normally kidnaps the show but whose character here is flatter than a microwaved McDonalds griddle cake run over by a Mack Truck. Wiig seems to like Stiller in return, because he is quiet and awkward and therefore a sensitive male genius. Their conversations are punctuated by a milquetoast indie pop soundtrack, so you know their love is real crazy authentic.
If it’s starting to sound like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was produced by a teenager who reads too much J.D. Salinger, that feeling only deepens as the movie progresses. Stiller loses a photo that famed photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) sends to Life, and then must track Penn down before the magazine goes to print and all hell breaks loose. Wiig suggests that Stiller go to Greenland, where Penn was last spotted, and then – defying no expectations– he actually goes. I think we’re supposed to think: “Holy shit! This movie is insane! It believes in carpe diem!” but what I actually thought was: “A same-day ticket to Greenland costs bank, carpe diem is for rich people.” After battling sharks (yup) and jumping out of helicopters (fantasy/reality? don’t care), Stiller moves on to Iceland, where he rediscovers his lost childhood dream of skateboarding. The filmmakers also throw Afghanistan into the mix, because nothing says whimsy like traveling to a devastated, war-weary country in order to whet your appetite for adventure sports!
It is at this very moment where The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, already choking on its own cheese, drowns itself in a pool of its very own Cheez-whiz. Stiller reveals to Wiig that he was forced to give up skateboarding in high school, when his father passed away and he had no choice but to shave his mohawk and take on a job at Papa John’s. While his father’s death is indubitably tragic, Stiller’s consequence is that he has to get a part-time after-school job like every normal American teenager. And at Papa John’s no less, where they include complimentary garlic sauce in every pizza, small or large. Stiller’s tragic reveal is symptomatic of the movie’s larger issue: a non-problem (work is boring! I am boring!) sparks a non-conflict (I must become more interesting so I can internet date!) and is resolved by a non-solution (I will travel to a developing country because it adds complexity to my character).
Movies don’t need to have suicides and explosions to say something meaningful, but The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has as much emotional heft as a Postal Service melody sung by Alvin & The Chipmunks. You can’t hate it entirely, because there are some genuinely warm jokes and because Sean Penn is a complimentary gift card sent from the highest reaches of Heaven. The cinematography can be stunning, and the movie does mean well. But watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty can sometimes feel like listening to a high-school slam poet read from his latest diary entry: it’s all-too earnest and over-the-top heartfelt. You can’t help but smile and look away.
Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you aren’t from Moveon.org.