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The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (2013) – film review

January 16, 2014


“Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” 

Reviewed on Wednesday 8th January 2014

secret life of walter mitty 2013 - skateboard

Directed by Ben Stiller. Screenplay and screen story by Steve Conrad, based on a short story by James Thurber. Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott and Sean Penn. Running time: 114 mins.

An introverted man prone to bouts of excessive daydreaming embarks on an incredible real-life adventure in order to re-ignite the intrepid spirit he once felt           as a child.

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is by no means a remake of the 1947 version, nor     is it a word-for-word retelling of the original 1939 short story by James Thurber – although it does use Thurber’s central premise as a jumping-off point for a whole new story. In this version, Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a ‘negative asset officer’ working in the bowels of the Life Magazine building in New York City. With publication of the final print issue of Life looming, Walter is charged with locating a missing negative sent to him by the magazine’s star photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) which has been specifically earmarked by him to be the final cover photo. At the suggestion of co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) whom Walter has a crush on – Walter jumps on a plane to Greenland to track the elusive globe-trotting photographer down and hopefully learn the whereabouts of the missing image.

Walter Mitty marks Ben Stiller’s fifth outing as director, following Tropic Thunder, and it couldn’t be any more different in tone and style to his previous work. It is visually astounding, flawlessly paced, tonally consistent, sincere, uplifting and inspirational.   It is clearly a throw-back to old school filmmaking and Stiller is well aware of the drama in a pause, the beauty of a shot and pacing which invites emotional engagement. There are many directors working today who could learn a thing           or two from Stiller’s assured and sensitive handling of this material.

Stiller gives a nuanced performance; effectively charting Walter’s transformation from milquetoast to man of the world. Adam Scott’s portrayal of a corporate sociopath charged with downsizing the magazine has an eerie ring of truth to it which is kind     of unnerving. Kristen Wiig is a lovely presence as Walter’s love interest Cheryl and catalyst for his adventures. Her understated performance anchors the film in ‘the real world’ – providing a nice contrast with Walter’s flights of fancy. But it is Olafur Darri Olafsson (an American-born actor residing in Iceland) who virtually steals the film     with his alarmingly believable turn as a blind-drunk, broken-hearted, karaoke-singing chopper pilot who offers to fly Walter out to a ship at sea where Sean Penn’s character was last seen. Seeing a barely conscious, barely coherent, heavily-bearded six-foot-tall Scandanavian man singing “I was working as a waitress in a cocktail     bar …” is certainly one of the more unusual movie moments of recent times.

Stiller has shown a great flare for incorporating existing songs into his movies in such a way that they provide meaningful commentary at pivotal moments (operating much like a Greek chorus) – but without being obvious about it: Jim Carrey’s rendition of ‘Somebody To Love’ in The Cable Guy immediately springs to mind. And Mitty is     no different – offering what is perhaps the most surprising, yet appropriate use of Bowie’s classic ‘Space Oddity’ ever put on film. The lyric “Ground control to Major Tom …” has never been used more fittingly than here. In a strange way, it almost feels as though the song was written for the film – which is an enormous achievement for such a gutsy undertaking – considering just how iconic this particular song actually is.

The cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano) is crisp and natural, without being overly stylized or drawing attention to itself and allowing the fantasy sequences to blend seamlessly with ‘real life’ – although I’ve personally never been a huge fan of the cobalt blue tinge and high-contrast grading which is so favoured in virtually every Hollywood movie being produced these days – but that’s just me.

The fantasy sequences (which I won’t be discussing here – as half the fun is realizing they are happening) – are well integrated into the first half of the film – garnering criticism from some who feel there should have been more instances of Walter’s daydreams in the second half. But in all fairness, these particular critics have really missed the entire point of the film. This is the story of a man who gains the courage to transform his dreams and ambitions into reality – thus his fantasy world becomes less important to him. At its most fundamental; this film could be considered a coming-of-age, rite-of-passage story – only in this instance the protagonist just happens to be middle-aged.

In a film year brimming with cynicism, nihilism and dystopian negativity, Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is a refreshing tale of positivity which will no doubt be embraced by anyone with a latent desire to follow their dreams.

4.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4  – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Event Cinemas Megaplex Marion, Adelaide, January 8th 2014.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

From → film reviews

  1. Dianna Taylor permalink

    Good, honest review about a film I enjoyed. I think Greg’s comments in the 2nd to last paragraph are correct. He was finally actually living his dreams. Well done Greg.


  2. davecrewe permalink

    Great review! I didn’t like this quite as much as you, but it’s definitely got a lot to love. Like you, I found that line – “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” – pretty crucial to the film’s central thesis. I just wish the stuff around the edges of that thesis (the romance plot, Adam Scott’s “evil boss” character) had been better executed.


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