Usually, when Christmastime rolls around, Ben Stiller finds himself in a franchise film, either one of the "Night at the Museum" movies (the third one is out next year) or the series based around "Meet the Parents" (there have been three of those, too). But this year, Stiller finds himself giving a different kind of yuletide greeting, with "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," a loose remake of the 1947 Danny Kaye movie (they're both based on James Thurber's 1939 short story of the same name).
In the movie, Stiller plays the title character, a man who works for Life Magazine in the photo department even though, as a physical object, Life hasn't existed for many years. Every once in a while, Walter "zones out" and enters a lush fantasy land of his own invention, only to snap back to reality. Until a crisis at work causes him to actually take an adventure and emotionally engage with the woman he loves from afar.
Stiller also produced and directed the movie, his first directorial effort since "Tropic Thunder," and it exists as a marked change of pace. The studio is marketing it like this year's "Life of Pi," wherein realism and fantasy gingerly swirl for maximum audience enjoyment. But is it a trip worth taking? Or should you just stay at home and see if "Zoolander" is on?
1. It's an Uncommonly Gorgeous Studio Comedy
The first thing that is very apparent about "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is how different it looks. It's genuinely stunning. The banal world of Walter is perfectly organized and bland, and Stiller the director composes his shots to reflect this. When Walter actually starts his adventure, the palette opens up and the camera becomes freer. Most Hollywood comedies, especially any of a certain budget, are washed out, over-lit affairs, with one indistinguishable from the next. With "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," Stiller has gone out of his way to create a jaw-dropping visual experience. Hopefully he knows how appreciated it is.
2. Ben Stiller Fully Commits
As both an actor and a director, you can tell that Stiller is fully on board. It took decades to crack this particular project, with a number of notable directors (everyone from Steven Spielberg to Ron Howard to Gore Verbinski) becoming attached and then disaffected and just as many actors doing the same (Sacha Baron Cohen, Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, etc.). Maybe the key to getting it off the ground was having the actor and the director be the same person, because Stiller really makes this his own. You can tell the attention to detail that is poured over ever frame and can feel Stiller the actor stretching to prove himself worthy of the material.
3. It's Good to See Kristen Wiig Again
We haven't seen Kristen Wiig in a little while, and now we get two Kristen Wiig movies in as many weeks (the other one being "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues")! We're just excited to see her shining face again. Her role in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is pretty thankless, but she gets to sing a David Bowie song at one point on a kind of helicopter pad, so that's cool.
4. There Are Issues, Right Off the Bat
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a movie based around a character who escapes into lavish fantasy dreamscapes. This, as an idea, is full of potential. It's also incredibly literary. But here's the problem: showing it on screen is crushingly dull. This mostly has to do with the fact that each sequence has to have three parts: the part where he starts to zone out (real world), the fantasy stuff, and then a part where someone realizes that he's zoning out and throws a paperclip at him or something (real world). Yes, the paperclip part really happens. This is fine once or twice, but when it's an integral part of the story, and it grinds the narrative to a screeching halt each and every time, well... Early on, the problems with "Walter Mitty" are very apparent and worrisome.
5. The Fantasy World and Reality Are Never Clearly Delineated
Another issue, maybe the second most devastating, is that the fantasy sequences and the real world stuff is never clearly delineated. Everything in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" has this kind of magical glow, so you never know when you're slipping in and out of a fantasy, and the entire second half of the movie, when Walter's going on his adventure, never feels all that impressive. That's the other problem with these two halves: neither have much dramatic weight.
6. The Titles Kick Ass
From a stylistic point of view, one of the more incredible aspects of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" are the movie's title cards and the cards that sporadically pop up elsewhere in the movie. These are wonderful visual flourishes and each time a new one arose I got a little tingle of delight. Again, this is an example of Stiller committing to the material and trying to milk it for all of its potential.
7. Adam Scott Is Horribly Miscast
Adam Scott, the great young actor from "Parks and Recreation" and "Piranha 3D," plays Stiller's in-between boss, a blowhard who is supposed to transition Life from the company it was (print) to the company it will be (online only). The problem is that Scott's portrayal is gratingly one-note and the phony beard they've saddled him with is worse than that scene at the end of "Thor: The Dark World" (the one that was clearly shot 8 months after principle photography wrapped). When a good actor gives a bad performance, it's hard not to blame the director. Not sure what Stiller was thinking with this one, but... Woof.
8. Shirley MacLaine Is in It
Even though none of the advertising material allude to this, Shirley MacLaine, a living legend, is in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," in the thankless role of Walter's mother. Hey, it's not much screen time and she basically serves as an awkward plot device. But Shirley MacLaine! Yay!
9. There Is One Scene That Is Hysterical
There is one sequence in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" that is absolutely hysterical. It's a fantasy sequence built around "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," even though Stiller's character admits that he's never seen the movie before, and features Stiller as a little old baby man. It's the funniest thing in the world. After our screening, I was hanging out with a colleague and she said, "I wish I had found that part as funny as you did." Maybe I'm alone on that one?
10. If You Want Feel-Good Fluff, "Saving Mr. Banks" Is a Better Idea
Here's the thing with "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty:" it's incredibly uneven, horribly so, and that makes for a pretty lousy movie. It's ultimately way too sappy and saccharine, and there are moments at every turn where Stiller (or someone, possibly the usually wonderful Steve Conrad) could have turned things around. But it just didn't happen. So if you want feel-good fluff that won't make you want to punch your fist through the walls afterwards, go watch "Saving Mr. Banks" instead. A lot of people have gotten riled up about the supposed historical inaccuracies, forgetting, of course, that it's not a documentary. But "Saving Mr. Banks" has heart and is, at the very least, consistent and true to itself. It's not the mishmash "Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is; "Saving Mr. Banks" is a fantasy worth slipping into.