The Secret life of Walter Mitty Review: a Ben Stiller comedy in disguise

Hello. This is a Korean In America. I went into see this movie through the snow and it was an interesting but uneven experience.

All empty mind dreamers are idealists.”
M.F. Moonzajer

There are movies in which you know exactly what you are getting into when you buy a ticket.  There are others in which you have no real idea what you are getting. But what the two situations share is that the results of either situation is never a given. Depending on the movie, either situation could result in a better movie going experience.

Going into the "Secret Life of Walter Mitty", the only thing I knew about the movie was from the excellent trailer. From the trailer, it looked like the movie was this whimsy, cute, and insightful movie with a fantastical bent to it. However, I did hear that the trailer was not a good representation of what the movie was actually like.

So, I went into the movie theater basically blind.

What did I get? Well...You'll have to wait. The plot description first!

The Plot
You have Walter who works in the film management office at Time Magazine. He is always this person who seems to zone off randomly to day dream. When the movie starts, Time Magazine is transitioning from a print to digital format. And, for the final cover, Walter seems to have misplaced a masterpiece photo by this wondering Hemingway like genius photographer, Sean O'Connell.  The movie then become of McGuffin chase to track down the photographer.

“A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”
---Oscar Wilde

What is this movie? It is a Ben Stiller comedy in disguise  

This movie is not the trailer!

“The Secret life of Walter Mitty” is, at its core, a straight "toss everything on the wall and see what sticks" comedy.

Think Ben Stiller's "Night at the museum" movies.

What is interesting about this movie is that it tries to camouflage the fact that it is a basic Ben Stiller Comedy. Here is the description of what I think was going in the writers' heads.

First, write a typical Ben Stiller Comedy.
Second, tone it down to a semi-serious drama level but keep all the comedy movie logic.
Third, keep all the comedic characters but remove most of the physical gags and the dialogue. But still keep a few to be just awkward enough.
Fourth, take all the discarded gags and convert them into visual gags and sprinkle them throughout the movie in the background.

Use a lot if artsy visual graphics like someone needs to justify buying that expensive software.

Finally, while the movie pretends it is an insightful movie, do not forget it is not. The ending should not be more insightful than a typical comedy movie.

So, spoilers, the movie gets a cliché "go out and live your life actively" ending.

The problems...
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" has two general problems.

“I don't have a burning desire to be taken seriously as an actor. I don't have a master plan in that way.”
---Ben Stiller

The first comes from being a "toss everything on the wall and see what sticks" comedy.

Not all of the gags work.

With this type of comedy, if 15% of the jokes really work and 40% of the jokes are OK, the movie is good. For "Walter", none of the jokes actually work and only 10% were OK.

The second general problem is the fact that all the jokes are hidden in the background.  Not only does this exacerbate the fact that the jokes are not funny, keeping the comedy characters and logic makes the plot of the movie unbelievable.

Our protagonist flies around the world in like a few hours.
He Jumps out of helicopters and climbs mountains with zero training and no budget.

When the movie is obviously a comedy, there is a suspension of disbelief that the audience is ready to give. In the case of this movie is it is problematic. We are willing to accept his day dreams as fantasies. However, there is a problem when the Walter's reality becomes more like his fantasy to a degree that it is difficult to differentiate the two.

On to the more specific problems!
The movie is noticeably divided into 2 parts. The first 40 minutes or so is “Walter day dreaming” phase. This is where there is dull daily life and fantasy intermixed together. This first part is the most problematic.

The direction of this first part is rather pedestrian. The director of this movie is Ben Stiller himself.

It is clear that he seems out of practice.

A lot of the material from trailers is from the first part. I was surprised that the editors of the trailers could edit together what they had into that excellent trailer. The manner in which the first part of the actual movie is filmed is neither whimsical nor clever.  

It’s rather dull.

In regard to the day dream scenes, they are odd. The day dream scenes are not well interconnected to the real life scenes or have any interesting meanings.

So, I pondered for a while why…

It took a few minutes to understand what day dream scenes are. They are basically comedy gags. Rather than showing Walter’s inner thoughts, Ben Stiller used them to deliver some bad jokes.

Going Hemingway
If the is “Walter day dreaming” phase is a very awkward collection of subtle bad gags and more awkward attempts at drama or character building, the second part can be called “Walter going Hemingway” phase.

Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much (she knows!)
Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear....

am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do.

---Lyrics from David Bowie’s Space Oddity

The “Walter day dreaming” phase ends ironically with a day dream of Kristen Wiig’s character singing David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Then the movie became a collection of beautiful scenes of Walter going from one dramatic location to another on the tail of genius photographer, Sean O'Connell

There is a drastic difference between the two phases. The gags are far less noticeable in the latter parts of the movie although there are still there. At least, most of the day dreams scenes are gone at this point since what Walter doing is actually more outlandish than his dreams.

The cinematography is fantastic in the “Walter going Hemingway” phase. I guess Ben Stiller got an excellent second unit director for those scenes.

The characters
All of the actors this movie has are very good at what they do which includes comedy.

They include Kristen Wiig, Kathryn Hahn, Patton Oswalt.

All of the performances are great. You have Shirley MacLaine coming in as Walter’s mother. You have Sean Penn    as a very Hemmingway like Sean O'Connell. He is actually funny and very manly.

The breakout actor from this movie is Kristen Wiig who is playing a normal person for a change. And this movie makes her the woman that Walter desires.

And I really get why!

She is one of those women you would want to be with in a real relationship and not a fantasy. Seeing her sing David Bowie’s Space Oddity was breath-taking.  

While all the performances are great, they are rather wasted as it is a one man show during the “Walter going Hemingway” phase. Most of the other characters just disappear except for Patton Oswalt’s E-Harmony Customer service phone operator.

Patton Oswalt is always reliable even as just a voice. However, he really didn’t need to be in the movie other than to fill out the “Walter going Hemingway” phase.

And What about Ben Stiller’s Walter?

Actually, pretty good. Ben Stiller does some decent acting in this movie.

Walter is a proper character rather than being a joke.  Ben Stiller tones down all the manic elements of his usual screen persona. Through the movie, he is the reformed Ben Stiller character that only appears at the end of his movies usually.

At the end…
This movie is one of those movies that have a plot which only exists because of some whimsy excuse.

The movie even lays this out in the end.

It only exists for the purpose of getting a character from one phase of his life to another.  With a good shrink, the movie may not have occurred.

And I’m good with it. He is happy at the end!

The thing I have the most problem with is the fact that it pretends to be something else at the beginning of the movie.

This movie is not an indie darling movie.

It is a Ben Stiller comedy in which Ben Stiller tries to be a better version of Ben Stiller you know he can be. I can say that this attempt is appreciated in comparison to anything Adam Sandler is doing.

I liked the movie when Ben Stiller goes Hemingway! The beginning and the end does not really work.

I’ll give it a cautious B-

Know what the movie is going in and you will enjoy it if you like Ben Stiller trying.

Score: B-

1 comment:

  1. Wow. This blogger/ moviegoer is very smart. Knows his literature AND has a rolodex memory of movies/ actors to compare a movie to.