The Movie Waffler New Release Review - The Secret Life of Walter Mitty | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Re-imagining of James Thurber's famous short story.

Directed by: Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Shirley MacLaine, Patton Oswalt, Sean Penn

Walter Mitty (Stiller) is a daydreaming, introverted "negative assets" manager at Life magazine. Obsessed with co-worker Cheryl (Wiig), he sets up an account with online dating website E-Harmony in order to contact her. Receiving an error message when he attempts to connect with her profile, Walter calls the site's helpline and is advised by helpline worker Todd (Oswalt) to do some traveling so he can make his profile more interesting. When Life photographer Sean O'Connell sends him a strip of negatives, including what he describes as "the quintessence of Life", Walter discovers said negative is missing. He sets off on a journey to locate Sean, retrieve the negative and make himself interesting enough to attract Cheryl.
James Thurber's short story is one that's been read by few yet has become a part of our cultural jargon. We describe anyone that makes unbelievable claims about their life experiences as a "Walter Mitty" type. Stiller's film, however, bears little relation to the source material and seems to borrow its title for marketing purposes, cashing in on cultural recognition.
There's a memorable moment in Stephen Frears' High Fidelity where Tim Robbins' character is savagely beaten by John Cusack and his buddies, only for the over the top scene to be revealed as no more than Cusack's daydream. It's a scene that's been ripped off many times since and has become a tired cliche at this point. The opening act of Mitty takes the gag to the extreme, Stiller indulging in increasingly over the top daydreams, mostly involving Wiig declaring her love for him or Stiller taking revenge on his smarmy new corporate boss (Scott). It quickly grows tiresome but when Stiller drops it in favor of a Paulo Coelho type journey of discovery plot the film ceases to bear any resemblance to the Walter Mitty archetype.
There's been much discussion of the increasing occurrence of product placement in Hollywood movies of late. I'm perfectly fine with it myself. I'd rather see characters use everyday real world products than fake ones that take you out of the reality of the film. Stiller's film, however, crosses the line from product placement into the realm of blatant advertising, rendering Mitty little more than a two hour collection of commercials.
It begins when Stiller calls the E-Harmony helpline and we're told by Oswalt of the advantages of that site over its competitors. Later, Oswalt makes a brief onscreen cameo, the purpose of which seems solely to tell us how tasty Cinnabon's produce is. Mitty is employed by Life magazine and the film bombards us with propaganda for the famous publication, including subjecting us to its motto no less than four times in the opening 30 minutes and musical montages built around its many famous covers. Papa John's Pizza, which cameo'd earlier this year in a shockingly blatant piece of advertising in Red 2, crops up again here when Stiller finds a branch in the middle of Iceland. The company logo is lit more clearly than Stiller himself and we get a lingering close up of a cup as Mitty recalls working for the company as a teen. The film is peppered with references to KFC, McDonalds, Facebook etc and you can't help wonder if the advertising was incorporated into the script or the script was written around the advertising. I almost vomited when Stiller had the cheek to have Mitty deliver a speech against commercialism at the film's climax. If this trend is to continue, whatever bodies are concerned with regulating advertising are going to have to impose some strong rules on Hollywood.
The bombardment of advertising makes it difficult to engage with the story but it's paper thin anyway. Now that Stiller has cut his teeth in commercials, he should return to making movies.

Eric Hillis