Movie Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty- This Admirably Creative Attempt from Ben Stiller Results in Overstated Metaphor and Shallow Misunderstanding

secretlife3 “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams, and live the life you have imagined,” stated author Henry David Thoreau expressing a naturalist sentiment that bemoans the vicarious escapism of pure imagination and pleads with us to discover life through direct experience. This is the central theme that surrounds the emotionless title protagonist in the newest film adaptation of the infamous James Thurber short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and though it’s sound advice to be sure it seems oddly displaced to be a driving refrain for the dreaming power of cinema. Within the latest remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty we unfortunately see director, producer, and star Ben Stiller in rather weak form despite his admirable decision to branch out creatively messily guiding Steve Conrad’s overstated script to never fully articulate the true meaning of intended self-discovery. The film reeks of overt desperation attempting to fully separate itself from the original Norman Z. McLeod adaptation in utilizing state of the art pristine visuals and engulfing panoramic surrounding but inevitably loses touch with the heart of the message by embodying in the end an all too generic presentation. It might be too gracious to even suggest that Stiller knows of the influences he’s admirably trying to invoke, but his The Secret Life of Walter Mitty tries to bridge the life affirming discovery of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru with the comedic thoughtfulness of John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar without ever approaching the depth of either. Stiller’s fifth film as a director sees him trying to lift himself out of the conventions of his overbearing low-brow comedic past and though his impressive visuals are skillfully conceived the film’s message gets lost in inflated clichés and naively mistakes living for reckless endangerment. As it is with most adaptations it’s clear that this version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty leaves behind the intention of Thurber’s original story about dreaming beyond the confines of the mundane by replacing that contemplation with a theme of actual life affirming self-discovery that unfortunately falls flat due to the indiscernibility of consistent impeccable imagery, the blunt underlining of obvious metaphor, and an inability to humanly connect with our more adventurous sensibilities. If there’s anything to take away from this rather uninvolving film about making the implausibility of dreams a felt reality it’s that Ben Stiller in his admirable attempt to grow as a filmmaker has given us a demonstration that perhaps imagining something is actually better than seeing it become a reality.

A steady consistency within modern day scripts is their profound ability to utilize the most ham-handed plot inventions that tend to eliminate the graceful addition of subtlety from the cinematic equation, which is a drastic flaw in the construction of Steve Conrad’s script. Conrad’s interpretation of James Thurber’s inventive short story has inspired a rather generic film that embraces cartoonish character structures and amplifies the intended message with overstated bombast instead of adhering to the original short story’s intent of showcasing the escapism of fantasy juxtaposed with a mundane existence or the 1947 adaptation’s colorfully novel interpretation. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty gets a modern reimagining as a romantic parable following the ordinary life of the title character Walter (Ben Stiller) who is written with cartoonish laziness as an expressionless, reserved hero pining for a woman named Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) who doesn’t even know he exists and also daydreams to escape his zero sum existence. Working as a “Negative Asset Manager” for Life Magazine, Walter finds that the final cover photo negative shot by the infamous adventure photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) is missing so he’s forced to exit his comfort zone of daydreaming about adventure and actually has to experience one in order to save his job. The script is filled to the brim with overt metaphor and a shallow understanding of the original short story and justifies its existence by creating a multitude of special effects driven sequences of the fantastical and realistic variety that inevitably blend together. Though some of the imaginary sequences have their humorist appeal, most notably an opening superhero introduction to the daydreams and a Curious Case of Benjamin Button parody later on in the movie, they often times fail to utilize their fullest potential and tend to unbelievably blend with the actual adventures that are later experienced. The script is conveniently written using severe extremes so that it’s easier to deliver the intended message that a life discovered is better than a life imagined and is trumpeted with obnoxious regularity. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty desperately wants to be all at once a romantic tale, an extravagantly visual adventure, and a thought provoking allegory for fulfilling your dreams and yet doesn’t come close to embracing any of these qualities with true creative honesty.

DF-11070-Edit - Ben Stiller in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY.

Even though Ben Stiller has had some experience in the realm of cinematic directing there hasn’t yet been a film that required directorial sensibilities beyond the comedic until this admirable extension of his filmography in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In order for the film to effectively engage the audience in its romantic inclinations, dramatic plight, and metaphorical themes there needed to be an experienced director who could meld all of these qualities into one coherent and beautiful piece of exploration cinema. Unfortunately, Stiller doesn’t quite have a developed finesse for each of these high concept qualities within his film which inevitably makes the romance somnambulant, the drama formulaic, and the metaphor flamboyant. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh practically saves this adaptation from debilitating insignificance with his exceptional use of visuals, including phenomenal moments of composition such as a picturesque still of Walter under the Greenland waters or Walter standing out mundanely amongst a crowd awaiting the subway. However, even with this extraordinary use of visuals they are sometimes not given enough difference in tonal presentation allowing the fantasy elements to blend too fantastically with the real adventures never allowing them to have a distinguishing tone inevitably numbing the effect of the intended message of discovering your real self in real adventure. Of course these criticisms can be directed toward the inexperienced directing abilities of Ben Stiller who has only dabbled in off-kilter comedies and never once approached the edge of the imagination. If most of the comedic choices were delivered with confidence and if the characters seemed a touch beyond a one dimensional cartoon then The Secret Life of Walter Mitty could have at least been an imaginatively flat comedy with stunning complimentary visuals instead of the sparsely comedic and ineffectively flat adventure tale that it actually is. Ben Stiller could end up growing from this relatively failed experiment because there are minor moments of comedic clarity and imaginative inspiration, but as it stands The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an unengaging film that shallowly explores an uninvolving romance, visually impressive yet fairly generic adventures, and a misunderstood theme of discovering oneself beyond imagination.

Another element that offers more uninspired creativity comes in the form of the oddly ineffective acting from a fairly talented cast mostly due to the script’s narrow development of underwhelming characters and the impact of the film being hindered by thematic overstatement. As the impassive Walter, Ben Stiller meanders through the film with disconnected ambivalence and occasionally offers a glimpse into his character’s growth that would be drastically more effective had it not been spelled out through dialogue and rather simply experienced in visual expression. It’s tough to say whether or not Stiller works in this role because the entire premise falls flat around him before we can get engaged in his character’s formulaic development, but it’s safe to say that perhaps he shouldn’t have tackled both the directing and acting responsibilities. The usually hilarious Kristen Wiig isn’t given much to do throughout the film and unfortunately doesn’t offer much evidence to convince us she’s a worthy love interest to pursue since there’s not really enough depth to her existence in the script. Another actor not given too much to do is Sean Penn portraying a Jack Kerouac inspired adventure photographer who spouts out pseudo-philosophical quotes and occasionally introduces something called acting talent in the mere moments he’s on the screen. On the other side we have Adam Scott doing too much playing a familiar douchebag role inspired by his many visits to the unpleasant side of his talents and yet he seems completely out of place in the sweet tone that the film wishes to take on. Due to the script’s laziness in venturing easy to develop characters and formulaic scenarios most of the suggested romanticism and engaging drama are diminished in potential magic and inventive spirit that the film could have possessed. All of these actors are familiar with the art of comedy and though they often times deliver some occasional laughs they are merely lost moments in the overall ineffective fantastical adventure that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty set out to become. It just goes to prove that even accomplished actors and a fairly experienced director need a great foundation in their script and a competent direction for the film to be something beyond average.

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It’s admirable to broaden one’s creative strengths, which is essentially what Ben Stiller has tried to do within his latest adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty but inevitably loses touch with the original intention of James Thurber short story that sought to expose life’s dullness through the expression of elaborate imagination. Instead, Ben Stiller’s adaptation seeks to undermine cinema’s most precious quality by stating that daydreaming imaginations are merely not as important as seeking them out through authentic experiences. But as the film exposes what it associates as real experience versus the inspiration of the imagination it begins to erode its own underlined message for simpletons as it begins to prove that sometimes dreaming of a reality doesn’t always translate well into an actual reality. Though it showcases some exceptional cinematography and strikes an occasional humorous chord, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty just becomes a messily constructed film that tackles too many attributes that required deeper focus, including the uninspiring romance, the generic adventures, and the supposedly deep themes relating to life affirming self-discovery. The film’s protagonist Walter might be an embodiment of our modern age where the reluctance to risk and adventure causes us to escape into our heads but if the film’s expression is the possibility of the reality we could seek out then it’s safe to say that perhaps we just need to concoct better daydreams.

Grade: C

Side note: This film will not be released till December 25th

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