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Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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When immersed in a lineup as generally depressing as this year’s New York Film Festival’s, it’s easy to forget that there are movies that exist just to make the audience feel warm and fuzzy inside. Not every film needs to tell a horrific true story or bleak false one. Sometimes it’s nice for things to just be nice.

Enter The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a film that even in its bleakest moments is a reminder that there’s more to life and that things will work out in the end. No one will look at it as a dramatic masterpiece, and it will all but undoubtedly be passed over come awards season, but I expect it will be looked back on fondly as 2013’s feel-good movie of the year.

[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the 2013 New York Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the film’s theatrical release.]

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Director: Ben Stiller
Release Date:
 December 25, 2013
Rating: PG

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) works for LIFE, a magazine that (in the film) is about to produce its final issue. The magazine has been bought out and is shifting to an entirely online presence, under the watchful eye of his new boss (Adam Scott, playing a douchier version of his character from Parks and Recreation). Mitty’s a daydreamer, and his relatively boring existence is made far less dull by his overactive imagination, one that sees him as heroic, suave, and all kinds of awesome. His daydreams can make socialization difficult, though, because time doesn’t stop while he imagines leaping into burning buildings. Instead, the person on the other end of the phone conversation wonders what’s happened to him and he’s missed his train.

But he yearns for love, specifically from Cheryl (Kirstin Wiig), recently employed by LIFE and worried that she’ll lose her job in the transition. Actually, everyone’s worried about that, Walter included. He’s especially worried because he seems to have lost a photo by the great Sean O’Connel (Sean Penn), who has sent a message to the LIFE executives saying that this particular image is his best work and should be the final cover. So when Walter can’t find it, that’s a problem. But it sends him on a wild goose chase, literally across the globe as he tries to track O’Connel down. And it’s that goose chase that makes The Secret Life of Walter Mitty such a thrill.

Walter Mitty’s bizarre skills seemingly come from nowhere, but a wonderful scene between him, Cheryl’s son, and a skateboard shows that there is undoubtedly more to the man than meets the eye. It may seem weird that a negatives asset manager has the stamina of a professional athlete, but it just hints at the man’s secret life. Where he acquired the skills is never explained (it’s never even considered), but it doesn’t matter. Walter Mitty, the man who daydreamed of being an adventurer, is an adventurer ready to go out and see the world. He just needed a little push.

Sean Penn

What makes The Secret Life of Walter Mitty so special is its reverence for the planet Earth. The film is full of extreme wide shots, with Walter sometimes not much more than a speck on the screen. Much of this adventure takes place in Iceland and Greenland, and it was the relatively untouched nature of these places that made them so attractive to the creative team. In a press conference after the film, one of the producers said that those countries seemed like some of the last unexplored beauties of the world, so they were a perfect place for Walter to go. And though I haven’t seen every worldly film out there, I think they’re right. Those images are incredible, and the vistas were all shot on location. Sure, maybe it’s not always Ben Stiller, but he said afterwards that he did as many of the stunts as he could possibly do, and one scene in particular, where he floats alone in the ocean beside Iceland, he was actually in those five foot swells.

Films like Life of Pi, shot in tanks with CGI surroundings, have started to numb me to those moments, but as I was watching, it felt so real in a way that those other films don’t. And almost everything had that sort of legitimacy that so many blockbusters lack. Not every moment was real, but enough are to really make The Secret Life of Walter Mitty feel like a document of a man’s journey, because in many ways it is. It’s not Walter Mitty’s journey, though; it’s Ben Stiller’s. He got to do all of these amazing things and go to these places. He’s not the boring character Walter is, but these were new experiences for him, and that connection between him and his character is likely part of why his performance is so spot-on.

Ben Stiller

At times I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the locations that I was considering staging a grand heist so I could afford a ticket to Iceland or Greenland. As Walter was finding his own inner explorer, I was giddy to go find mine. It’s not really a new thing that I’ve wanted to see the world, but it’s been a long time since anything has gotten me so excited about the blue and green ball we all inhabit, film or otherwise.

Using LIFE’s transition as a backdrop for all of this action was a brilliant move, and using covers from the magazine’s history (mostly real but a few faked) really adds to the beauty of the film. The creative team had access to the actual archives, and they pored over these images and chose the ones that would make key moments even more meaningful. For much of the film, I thought that maybe the photo Walter was looking for didn’t exist, and O’Connell was making a grand statement about nothingness (the image had been cut from the film strip that was sent back to the lab), but when the image finally appears (and it does), it really is a damn fine picture.

And, you know what? That’s a great way to describe this film. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a damn fine picture. 

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