Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) sees himself as a failure. As he flips through his personal budget, rifles through negatives in his job at LIFE magazine or stares at the eHarmony profile page of co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), he emits an aura of vacancy. It’s like he’s barely there and, sometimes, he isn’t, lost in flights of fancy where he dives into or out of New York skyscrapers, a superhero in his own mind.
His sense of failure extends to his workplace; you see, LIFE is “transitioning” to a digital business, and the guy in charge of that transition, Ted (Adam Scott), is eager to downsize a good chunk of their employees. Despite having spent over a decade with the company, Walter seems convinced he’ll be one of the heads on the chopping block. Stiller portrays Mitty as a man of quiet resignation, who would feel undervalued if he could find any value in his own life.
Thankfully, as director, Stiller doesn’t fall into the trap of depicting Mitty’s ordinary man as a failure. Despite trafficking the clichés that Hollywood thinks indicate a life unrealised, a line of dialogue from the film – “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” – is thankfully indicative of a film that refuses to indict Walter from “flaws” like not having travelled overseas or being single. He does eventually travel overseas, to Greenland and beyond in search of a missing negative (possessed by Sean Penn’s weathered, famous photographer), but while this experience is enriching, the film uses Mitty’s experiences to allow him to find his intrinsic value.
Fittingly, for a film whose narrative focuses on photography, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is gorgeously photographed. Whether it’s in the kinetic action of the fantasy sequences or the beautiful scenery of the Himalayas, director Stiller and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (also responsible for The Piano and, uh, Æon Flux) create a sense of majesty.
Visually, Stiller takes inspiration from great directors while introducing some tweaks of his own. Tati’s Playtime is a key influence, both on the design of the LIFE office (strongly reminiscent of the airport architecture from Playtime) and the colour palette used. The colours are that of an icy lake, deep blues and algae bluegreens and flashes of turquoise like shards of ice drifting in the current. The film takes these colours from the LIFE building all the way to the cold seas of Greenland, perfectly suiting the cool tone of the film. Wes Anderson’s story-book, rectilinear approach is also an inspiration, remixed with innovative, impish touches. A negative frame dissolving into a bird’s eye shot of Walter by an artificial pond, or the LIFE magazine motto rendered in the background. These aren’t always successful, however: a journal entry about “hope drifting like snow” both drifting and then exploding into snow is as silly as it sounds.
The nods to cinematic history don’t end at the photography; it’s surely not accidental that Walter’s mother is played by Shirley MacLaine and her subplot revolves around her moving into a new …apartment. That subplot is one of the many paths the film branches off into, and sadly most of them are far less interesting or well-executed as Walter’s core storyline. The most egregious of which is Patton Oswalt’s storyline: he appears as an enthusiastic eHarmony help line operator who’s also especially enthusiastic when it comes to Cinnabons. It’s a transparent vehicle for product placement and does nothing to justify its inclusion in the film (though was surely critical for getting it financed in the first place). Adam Scott sports an incredibly fake beard and an equally unconvincing role as a sneering villain, while Wiig is little more than a love interest. At least in Anchorman 2 she had some funny lines; here, her abundant talents are squandered.
It’s not surprising that a feature length film based on a very short story (by James Thurber) would require some substantial padding out, but it’s a shame. While Mitty’s character arc and the look of the film are both great, the film never reaches for the sense of profundity it so desperately desires. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is much like its protagonist – fundamentally beautiful, but possessing an unfortunate need to try to be something more than it is.