Review: Ben Stiller offers up a mild ‘Secret Life of Walter Mitty’

It seems particularly fitting that there is a “Benjamin Button” joke in Ben Stiller’s film version of James Thurber’s “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty,” since “Mitty” is the only film I can think of that’s been in active development longer than “Button,” at least since I moved to Los Angeles in 1990. Both were based on short stories, both offered intriguing challenges to a long line of filmmakers, and both seem to have gone through all sorts of various versions before finally ending up in front of the camera.

The greatest challenge facing any writer trying to turn Thurber’s three page story into a feature film is that there’s no real plot to it, and Steve Conrad’s final on-screen credit is screenplay by and screen story by, which seems fair. What Conrad carried over from the story is Walter Mitty’s tendency to get lost in fantasy as he views the world around him, and his deeply-seated desire to live a life of adventure, but he’s had to create everything else. In the film, Mitty works in the negative department of “Life” magazine, and he has a particularly close relationship with photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), and in the midst of getting the news that the magazine is closing down, Mitty is informed that a particular photo of O’Connell’s is going to be the magazine’s final cover. Unfortunately, that single image appears to have never been sent to the magazine, and Walter has to figure out how to track down this globe-trotting figure of mystery to retrieve the negative in an effort to keep himself from being fired by the guy who was brought in to handle the transition, played by Adam Scott.

At the same time, Walter is trying to work up the nerve to speak to Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a recent hire at the office, and it seems like that’s the most terrifying prospect to him. He overhears her mention that she’s got an eHarmony profile, and so he signs up for the site to try to make a connection with her there. In doing so, he is forced to deal with the fact that he’s got nothing special he can include in his profile, nothing defining. It’s like he barely exists. In his life away from the office, everything seems to center around his mother (Shirley MacLaine), and little wonder. Ever since he was 17 and his father died, his life has been all about taking care of his mother and his sister (Kathryn Hahn), who is an aspiring actor. He’s been the responsible one for his entire adult life, subverting his own desires for so long that his fantasy life seems like it’s the only place he can still be himself to any real degree.

The first and most striking thing about the film is Stuart Dryburgh’s gorgeous cinematography, and in the moments where Mitty’s fantasies take flight, there is some striking VFX work by FrameStore, Hydraulx, and a few other vendors. It is often a lovely film, both in terms of how some of the outrageous elements are realized and also in terms of where the film was shot. It looks like one of those films where the experience of making it must have been remarkable, but that doesn’t always translate to an equally amazing experience for the audience. In the case of “Mitty,” I think the final film is a mixed bag, a movie with some deft, touching details that also offers up some very pat observations. I felt like I was sitting in a traffic jam, and while I eventually got where I was going, there were a lot of starts and stops along the way.

I recently criticized the film “Horns” for the way it abandons its best idea too early, and it becomes frustrating because that idea is the most special thing that the film does. “Walter Mitty” is the same way. Early on, Walter’s daydreams are elaborate visual moments that spin the film into some very strange digressions, but by design, as the film progresses, there are fewer and fewer of those moments, and it seems like a bit of a letdown. Sure, the point of the film is that Walter needs to actually live his life and stop allowing his fantasies to surpass his actual existence, but it’s still a very tough thing for the film to overcome. In some ways, these films hobble themselves with that sort of frontloading. Sure, once they settle down and they tell their stories, you can see why those choices were made, but it doesn’t change the fact that many of the best moments or images or ideas are offered in the first third of the film.

One of the aspects of the film that will draw conversation is their aggressive use of real-world brands, and I’m sure many people will dub it all “product placement,” but I don’t think it’s that simple. Conrad’s script uses so many actual brands because in some ways, he’s trying to say something about the emotional weight that we place on brands, and how those emotional reactions happen for any number of reasons. There’s a running thread in the film about Papa John’s Pizza, and ultimately, it feels like the reason to use it is twofold. First, it’s to show how oddly global certain brands are and how strange it feels to stumble across something so familiar in an unexpected setting, but also to pay off a certain emotional beat for Mitty. Could it be done without using Papa John’s Pizza? Sure. The film does that repeatedly, though, possibly to the point of distraction, the biggest of those being the use of “Life” itself. It seems like an irresistible idea that should have been resisted, because now every single mention of “Life” takes on that double edge. Are they talking about the magazine, or are they making a larger point about the life each of us lead? It’s too on the nose, too telegraphed from the very start. Even so, there was a payoff near the end of the film involving the magazine’s cover that actually got me, and it struck me as a very real nostalgic note for the passing of the magazine age. I find it just as distracting when a film goes out of its way to use no real-world brands, instead inventing everything, because that seems just as blatant, just as hard to tune out. Ultimately, I think I prefer it when they just use real-world things, but it needs to be done with a delicate touch, and there is little about “Mitty” that I would call delicate. Eventually, the film hammers you with so many brands and products that it becomes overwhelming, and it led to me getting distracted, thinking things like, “Isn’t Universal trying to make a ‘Stretch Armstrong’ movie? Were they okay with another movie using him this much?”

I think there are some lovely grace notes throughout “Mitty,” and overall, I liked the film, but it is a film that seems to be constantly struggling with its own tone and identity. My favorite material just deals with the ways Walter is forced to grapple with the real world, and some of the characters he meets on the road. It’s more character-oriented, and I found a good chunk of it fairly charming. Oddly, the romantic storyline is the one that ends up feeling like it was shoehorned in, and it’s a shame. I think Kristen Wiig does very grounded, charming work, but the evolution of Walter from shy and invisible to confident and crush-worthy never strikes me as true in the film. I like certain scenes that are part of that storyline, and I thought there were a great couple of beats involving Wiig’s son in the film that are more honest in terms of the way we forge connections with people than the romantic stuff, which is telescoped in all the ways movie romance is normally telescoped. Everything has to happen instantly in order to fit in all of the epiphanies that Walter Mitty is required to have over the course of the film. I far prefer a role like the one Patton Oswalt plays than the one Adam Scott gets saddled with. Scott’s a funny guy, but how many times can directors cast him as The Unctuous Prick without giving him something else to do?

Sean Penn gives my favorite performance in the movie, and there’s not a lot of it. He’s a symbol more than a character, the thing that Mitty is chasing, but when he does show up, he not only suddenly grounds the film thanks to the way he plays his scene, but it’s also a reminder that Penn has one of the great movie faces. This is a guy who looks like he goes and lives a real life between film jobs, and he doesn’t try to disguise that or dress it up. He manages to etch a solid portrait of a guy who has gone around the world capturing moments for others, occasionally keeping one for himself, and it’s done in just a few lines, a few beats. I think one of the great shames of Penn’s career is how rarely he’s been cast as a relatively normal guy. In conversation, the real Penn is smart and engaging and interesting, and he seems to have a wide range of interests. On film, he’s cast to play big broad parts like Mickey Cohen in “Gangster Squad” these days, or the disturbing Robert Smith parody in “This Must Be The Place,” and it seems like even those roles come less and less frequently now. Maybe I liked seeing him in this simply because this resembles the real Sean Penn, and not a cartoon.

There was a fair amount of chatter after people saw the initial trailer for this movie from people who seemed to think it was amazing and unconventional, and I think if you’ve set yourself up thinking this is going to be some transcendent genre-busting work of art, you’re going to be disappointed. At heart, “Walter Mitty” is a pretty conventional story about a guy trying to find his voice and make a place for himself in the world. I would not call “Mitty” surprising, but in its best sequences, there is a gentle sensibility to the storytelling and a lyrical visual quality. I wish Mitty’s epiphanies had been less about the conventions of what we’re trained to expect from movies like this and more about the unexpected detours that often define our lives. Those are the moments where “Mitty” is at its best, and there are enough of them for me to give it a recommendation, albeit a soft one.

“The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” opens in theaters everywhere on Christmas Day.