The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Up front, I’d like to give the guy who created the final trailer for Walter Mitty an award.

I remember seeing that trailer in late Fall 2013, leading up to the Christmas Day release of the movie; and I remember being dazzled at just how good that trailer was… nodding toward that abyss of existential angst underlying any human ego and offering to provide one man’s way of soaring above it — all with triumphant music, stunning color, and a resolutely resonant Ben Stiller… although underlying it all, I found myself skeptical of any of it being real. It was like falling in love with someone across a crowded room, thrilling over the mere sight and sound of them, yet knowing full-well that things could likely flop if you ever dared actually approach them and find out who they truly are.

And that’s how the movie worked for me.

The issues come at the start and last a good half-hour or more into the story. The movie is flat… very flat…. to the degree I almost stopped watching. Stiller does best when he’s allowed to create energy on-screen… but the interpretation of Walter Mitty is so restrained and internalized that Stiller isn’t really able to engage anyone or anything until later in the movie as he begins to explore his own self-expansion. Beats drop out of the dialogue, there are long pauses where someone should be responding, and Mitty just… stands there. Or says something inconsequential. It’s hard to care about a character who doesn’t seem to care.

Adam Scott as Hendricks, the “professional head chopper” who decimates the Life mag staff, comes off as a brittle and annoying twerp (with a paste-on beard, to boot!) who no respectable company would have taken seriously enough to hire. Again, the tone issue is a killer; if Walter Mitty weren’t so flat and humorless, then maybe we could view Hendricks as caricature, but it just doesn’t gel.

Fortunately, Wiig (as the potential love interest of this isolated man), MacLaine (as his independent and engaging mom), and Penn (as the almost-but-not-quite MacGuffin of this “coming to terms with self” story) do a lot to both anchor and energize the movie before it completely deflates. Even Patton Oswalt’s rather random character (the eHarmony service rep who jovially pesters Mitty throughout the movie) is more entertaining.

The movie comes more to life when Walter finally does something “crazy” (mostly out of desperation — he’s too professional to quit trying, even after it doesn’t matter) and takes off for Iceland, to track down photographer O’Connell and acquire the missing “negative #25”. In the process, he ends up having to take more risks than he’s reduced himself to over the years, reacquiring a spark for life he once had but then had forgotten.  Some of the depicted events are unbelievable, yet the landscapes and depicted events are the most stunning parts of the movie  — far more compelling than the character of Walter Mitty.

And ah yes, where is that mysterious “negative #25” that is “lost” in the early part of the movie, instigating Walter’s decision to take a risk? Well, I imagined it going one of two ways, and it was my second thought that proved true. No real surprises there. The content itself kept me guessing ’til the end, yet left me unsatisfied with its conventional sentiments. I thought the ending would be… bigger?

Maybe it was that trailer that I couldn’t get out of my head. You know, the one that made this a story larger than Walter Mitty, a story that encompassed all of humanity. The one that sent my pulse pounding, my heart racing, spurred a desire to just drop all the dead weight of my day and look for more meaningful ways to spend my time. The one that suggested a large lesson — that life is not meant to be managed or processed, it’s meant to be lived, and the risks we take for the things we desire and love (rather than just hiding in our heads) are what ends up contributing to our eventual satisfaction.

So live, Walter. And let’s live, all of us… not the secret life, but the real one.

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