NYFF 2013: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – Movie Review

Director: Ben Stiller
Writer: Steven Conrad
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn
Runtime: 114 minutes
Rating: PG

Walter Mitty is in all of us, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a film that is set close to us as well. This film tells the story of an ordinary LIFE Magazine employee’s last days at work before being laid off. The protagonist, Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), shares a character trait of the original 1930s short story character of the same name – daydreamer of few words – but little else. In the film, Walter loses track of an important photograph and chases photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) across the world, performing extraordinary acts of which he did not believe himself capable.

The first thirty minutes of the film will strike almost any film-goer as cliché: Walter daydreams of dating co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) and comes late to work, where he meets the new transition manager Ted (Adam Scott), who bullies him around. In fact, Ted throws a paper clip at Walter’s head, establishing for the audience early that he is basically a middle-school bully in a suit. Walter then fantasizes about fighting Ted in Manhattan traffic, resulting in one of the film’s scenes that uses the most computer graphics.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

And then, without the audience noticing, the tone of the film changes. Walter embarks on Sean’s trail and throws himself into the wild North, and the film becomes focused on the magnificent scenery that Walter sees. In preparing for the film, Stiller, screenwriter Steven Conrad, and co-producer John Goldwyn studied stills from the Time-Life Magazine archives, which helped them successfully reproduce excellent shots of nature. We as the audience are able to forget about Stiller’s offbeat humour and gimmicky tropes, and to appreciate the film for its ability to explore a foreign land.

Stiller and Conrad did a great job in making the film both “real” and “hyper-real,” in Conrad’s words. We may think that an element is put into the film to simply amuse, but everything has a purpose. For example, Walter talks to an eHarmony customer service guy at various points in the film, even while he climbs the Himalaya Mountains. This occurrence allows something “real” (i.e. internet dating) to meet something hyper-real (i.e. cellphone signals in the Himalayas), and without spoiling the story, Walter’s relationship with the eHarmony guy eventually helps advance the plot. The film has a series of dots that seem scattered at first, but as we follow Walter’s journey, we are able to connect them and to appreciate the fact that we gave this film our time. Some films do not deserve to be watched from beginning to end, but The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one that rewards the audience for doing just that.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

On May 18, while going out for a walk in the Upper West Side in Manhattan, I stumbled upon the building where the film’s first scene would take place. “It’s a Ben Stiller film that’s gonna be released later this year,” a staff member told me. The story hits home for me because Time-Life is a publication for which I wanted to work since before moving to New York to study journalism. I knew about LIFE Magazine’s shutdown in 2009, and I knew no job is stable in in the journalism world, so the script felt bittersweet. But in the middle of the movie, I was able to forget all my prejudices and sentiments, and come to appreciate Earth and the people who roam around on it. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a deceptively powerful film.

Photo Credit: New York Film Festival