The Secret Life of Walter Mitty begins as a series of Hallmark catchphrases before evolving into something more interesting and substantial. The title character, played as a low-key, foot shuffling dweeb by Ben Stiller (who also directs), daydreams a series of events, taking him out of his day-to-day monotony as a 16-year employee at LIFE magazine and into a series of mini-adventures wherein he’s the hero. Cute, at first, these little scenes grow tiresome and are rarely necessary. Thankfully, about midway through, the story begins to gain steam, the daydreams go away and the film begins to actually be about a little something more than cutesy moments of escapism.
Working in the photo department at LIFE, Mitty is tasked with prepping the latest photo from the magazine’s top photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), a photo that will serve as the final print cover image as the magazine is transitioning to a digital-only model. As takeover execs march into the office, led by a bearded asshole played by Adam Scott, Mitty suddenly realizes this “quintessential” image from O’Connell has gone missing and thus becomes the story’s MacGuffin.
In his efforts to track down the missing negative, Mitty finds his mind and eye wandering, largely in the direction of new LIFE employee Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) to whom he’s taken a liking and will eventually spur him on to abandoning his daydreams and living out his own, real life adventure.
As crunch time closes in, Mitty takes her advice and sets off to tracking O’Connell at his last known whereabouts… Greenland. Mitty’s wildest daydreams have become his real life as he skateboards toward an erupting volcano, punches a shark and lays in wait of a snow leopard. Mitty’s daydreaming is a thing of the past and he’s now living his life, but to say the film is “about” much else would be a bit of a stretch.
We definitely learn all about eHarmony “winks” and get to watch Mitty and his eHarmony operator, Todd (Patton Oswalt), share and talk about how great Cinnabon is, but I’m not sure that’s what the film is about. Though during those specific scenes that certainly seems to be the case.
However, there’s an earnestness to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty that kept me engaged and from really turning against it, despite checking several boxes that typically turn me off. The overly sentimental, quirky and twee first act begins to grate and as much as I understand product placement helps pay for a lot of today’s films that may not have otherwise received funding, sitting down and discussing the joys of eating an 880 calorie cinnamon roll turns me off immediately, even if it is Patton Oswalt delivering the lines.
However, Sean Penn as the nomadic photographer, Mitty’s mother played by Shirley MacLaine and the Major Tom moment are enough for me to give this film the ever-so-slightest of passes. There are people in my life that are instantly turned off by Ben Stiller and they are likely to run from this film from the opening minutes, but others I’m sure will eat it up, finding warmth in the saccharine nature of it all. No problem there, you could certainly find less ambitious, sugary movies to embrace.
In my estimation, however, Mitty would have found greater success had it sharpened its teeth a bit and grown a pair. There are allusions to corporate greed and the lack of humanity in today’s business process, a lack of humanity that has turned people into corporate drones with no life outside their cubicle, a life where daydreams are the only way they’ll ever experience the world. At one moment Mitty stands up to this idea, but it’s a scene that offers little to no real catharsis, though I think we’re expected to take more from it than is actually up on the screen.
As an audience member you will either go along for the ride or likely believe you’re watching the expanded narrative of a long form shoe or sports drink commercial. In a lot of ways it feels the commercial prospects of the film got in the way of the storytelling. I understand movies have to make money or studios aren’t going to make them, but any teeth this film may have otherwise had feels as if they have been filed down to dull nubs.