The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (2013) review (PG-13)

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Way, way back in 9th Grade Super-Advanced English, when I was forced to read Thurber’s ‘The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty’, I found Walter, the protagonist of that short story, to be quite the happening guy… At that time, I don’t think I was capable of reading an actual book (which I did have to do). If it didn’t have photos or illustrations, at some point I would simply block the incoming information that was passing through my eyeballs and my brain would be off doing other things (which was another reason that my sympathies probably were with one Walter Mitty). This was truly a short story, though… It was like a single chapter from one of those other books forced upon me by the State of Florida (or at least my English teacher). I mean it was less than 35 pages if memory serves me and that was pushing the limits of my 13 year old brain. Plus, Mitty’s exploits kind of bobbed all over the place with Mitty’s imaginings of himself as a surgeon, or an assassin or a pilot. To my still forming brain, this was a guy that took tedium and made it fun. In every job that must be done, he was finding an element of fun. He found the fun and SNAP!… Every job was a game! Of course, my English teacher (we’ll call her Ms.Lovesnatch for our purposes here), did not care for my interpretation because I was WRONG. And much like Mitty’s wife, she proceeded to beat me into submission. “Walter Mitty was a man to be pitied, a continuing tragedy, a man who retreated from life rather than living it!” she said.

“Okay… I can see that I guess.” I did want an ‘A’, so I acquiessed, conceding the point that Mitty was NOT a righteous dude, but a tragic figure not be envied. I doubt Ms. Lovesnatch could ever be a fan of Terry Gilliam, with their reoccurring themes of the power of the imagination as salvation… But, in that particular instance, the ‘A’ was more important than making some kind of futile stand against state oppression. Lovesnatch  also probably would have been disappointed with director Ben Stiller’s expansion of that short story… And with my own feelings for this latest silver screen interpretation of Thurber’s short story.

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What Stiller has done with his slant is to completely discard the tragic elements of a put-upon, daydreaming schlep who prefers fantasy over reality into a portion of an underdog tale with a pinch of empowerment and a small dose of adventure. Stiller’s take is not one of tragedy, instead aiming to make Mitty into a crowd pleaser. Whereas he starts out as the ineffective foil in Thurber’s brief narrative, at some point Stiller transforms Mitty into a protagonist with an arc. This is very much like having Charlie Brown hit the home run, kick the football and impress the little red headed girl. Something about it just didn’t feel right. In a way, it cheapens it. That is, if A) you’ve read the novella and B) you’re a purist when it comes to translating source material to the big screen. Fortunately for me, I’m no purist.

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Besides directing duties, Ben Stiller plays the title character: Walter Mitty. Stiller’s Mitty is a meek man who is prone to ‘zoning out’, sometimes in the middle of conversations, creating fantasies where he possessed courage where he has none in reality. Walter works at Life Magazine (appropriately) where he has a crush on a co-worker, Cheryl Melhoff (played by Kristen Wiig). ‘Melhoff’ may have been  a nod to who Mitty’s character was supposedly (loosely) based upon; Thurber’s friend Walter Mithoff, but I digress…. Anyway, not being bold enough to be able to approach Cheryl directly, he learns that she has an account on eHarmony  (an online dating service) and is soon creating his own account in hopes of a relationship. Complicating things, Life is in the midst of an extreme overhaul (I think the writer is trying to tell us something), where the magazine will no longer be published except on the internets. Everyone on staff is under review to determine their necessity to the company and Walter almost immediately gets on the bad side of the obnoxious man in charge of overseeing the transition (and the firings). Being the ‘negative assets manager’ for the magazine, Walter is in charge of  the general indexing of photographs, especially for its star (cover) photographer Sean O’Connell. Mitty finds the latest cover shot to be apparently missing and is given an ultimatum to either find the cover shot or be fired. In desperation, Mitty sets out for Greenland in order to find the photographer, of course stepping out of his comfort zone and embarking on a journey sure to change his worldview, right?

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If I were to judge this film primarily on how faithful it is to the source material then it would be an outright failure, no questions about it. Judging it on its own merits, however and I found it to be moderately enjoyable. It’s not Thurber’s story, but a Ben Stiller vehicle. If you like ben Stiller and the films he’s directed in the past (like The Cable Guy or Tropic Thunder), them you’ll probably enjoy this one to some degree. It was a little surprising that this one had such an obnoxious amount of product placement given that Stiller has made fun of Hollywood’s penchant for this in the past. The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is like a 2 hour advertisement for Life magazine, eHarmony  and PapaJohn’s Pizza…. Maybe even for Stretch Armstrong, too. It was obvious (and slightly annoying), but there were enough laughs in the film along with an amiable vibe from and for the central character that one could forget about the constant reminders of the film’s sponsors… Well, almost forget…

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The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is typical of this years crop of films. It was adequate and not much more. It entertained, but will probably be quickly forgotten. There is an important, underlying theme to the film, it’s ambitious to use one of those often used words that ‘real’ critics use, but Stiller and Co. could have aspired for a little more. It was sold as an epic and despite Walter traveling to the far reaches of the planet, still felt small. Much like the title character it was meek for a film that features in the imagination of its hero and maybe a little too safe. Or maybe Stiller was just going for irony. In any case, I did like it even if it wasn’t the tragedy that Ms. Lovesnatch would have been hoping for.

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3 of 5

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