Attempting to visualize the colorful inner workings of the human imagination is always a daunting task in cinema. Sometimes, it works, as in the stunning emotional beauty of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Other times, it comes off as uninspired and contrived. Unfortunately, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” falls unceremoniously in between.
To start, it’s a great concept. Mitty (a wonderfully restrained Ben Stiller) is a bland-as-white-toast photo processor for the prestigious (and aptly named) “Life Magazine.” He was fun once, but now it’s all hum drum as he does recreational checkbook balancing, is berated by his new boss and secretly pines for the girl of his (day) dreams, Cheryl (a dynamic Kristen Wiig). His only escape is his wandering imagination, which sweeps him up in episodic, would-be adventures. This happens so frequently that his coworkers liken him to a space cadet. But when the cover photo for the magazine’s big final issue is lost, Mitty’s daring dreams must become a reality as he tries to track it down across the globe.
The type of film that ensues is best described as an increasingly far-fetched travelogue. It’s exhilarating to see the bookish Mitty face down stormy seas, perilous climates and erupting volcanoes. The structure of this journey seems a bit imbalanced however, dragging us back to his boring New York cubicle just when we want him to venture farther.
The biggest problem in the film is inconsistency. Stiller not only plays the eponymous lead character, but also directs this modern day fantasy, though he seems unsure of what movie he was trying to make. The result is what feels like 10 different films, roughly packed into Mitty’s alternative realities. Some of his fantasies are perfectly timed, inventive projections of what he is so obviously wishing he could do in the moment. Others feel out-of-the-blue and are played solely for an easy laugh, providing little insight into the scene they detour. His fantasies also becomes imbalanced in their occurrences, either needing to be used a tad less or much more throughout the film overall.
While many aspects of Mitty’s lonely life are presented with heart-wrenching genuineness (without question due to Stiller’s acting), others feel cliche and caricatured. This is most notable in nearly every interaction between Mitty and his trigger-happy boss (a sharp-tongued and sharper-bearded Adam Scott). Scott’s Ted is a bully to Mitty for the sake of being a bully, and distracts from the much more interesting core of the story: Mitty’s reconciliation between his expectations and reality.
That being said, there are moments of brilliance in “Walter Mitty.” Many of the actors hit their roles right on the head, from Sean Penn’s rugged real-life adventurer Sean O’Connell to Patton Oswalt’s chipper voice acting as an eHarmony technical support officer. The vicarious sensation of watching Walter finally act on his fantasies is incredible fun, specifically when in a spurt of released impulse he leaps aboard a departing helicopter in Greenland (finally a scene that pays appropriate tribute to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”). All of this is captured in Stuart Dryburgh’s breathtaking cinematography, which makes even the boring white walls of Walter’s workplace feel like a backdrop to an adventure waiting to happen.
The pacing takes too long to pick up, with plenty of awkward silences that the audience will undoubtedly fill with their own daydreams. Despite the fumbles in execution, it’s clear that that like his character Walter, Stiller dared to do something different with “Mitty.”
These days, that in itself is worth the price of admission.