Pretty as a picture, and nothing more

January 26, 2014

Pretty as a picture, and nothing more
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig,
Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn,
Patton Oswalt, and Sean Penn
Director: Ben Stiller
Tagline: Stop dreaming. Start living.
In his famous 1939 short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, James Thurber introduced the world to his daydreaming protagonist who would end up becoming a part of the vernacular, his name synonymous with someone who is given to flights of fancy. After inspiring a 1947 movie of the same name, the story now yields another loose big screen adaptation in the form of Ben Stiller’s comedy drama The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which takes very little from the original narrative and dials down its poignancy by several notches to arrive at something less involving and far more belaboured than the text that inspired it.

Walter Mitty’s latest incarnation sees him working as a negative assets manager in the photograph department at Life magazine, pining over his genial co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) but too timid to ask her out, and prone to getting lost in escapist fantasies wherein he performs daring, heroic feats. But when the magazine is acquired and its print edition shut down, and the negative of the "quintessential" image meant to be on its last cover goes missing, Walter goes on a quest to look for photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) who took the photograph in question, in the hopes of finding out what the image was and where it went.

As he sets off on his globetrotting adventure with perfunctory visits to Greenland, Iceland, and the Himalayas, the tedium starts to set in. At times it feels like you’ve been transported into the middle of a travelogue that is doubling as a motivational discourse, but the impact that these visits are supposed to have and the joy and awe that should come with his "stop dreaming, start living" epiphany feels to be missing. It also doesn’t help that even when he has set off on his actual adventure, things don’t really feel like real life and still keep playing out like his daydreams; as a result, the character never seems real or vulnerable enough for us to care about him.


The exotic locations do, however, make beautiful backdrops, and between its location shoots and special effects you can see where the nearly $100 million budget went. The film is visually beautiful, smoothly executed, and buffed with a thick layer of polish. The problem, however, is that it fails to engage, and the excess starts to turn a simple, poignant story into a display of privilege. As a result, the forcibly motivational vibe feels oddly superficial and doesn’t seem as profound as it’s meant to be.

To their credit, the cast deliver good performances, even if their characters are thinly written. Ben Stiller (who deserves props for pulling The Secret Life of Walter Mitty out of development hell where it had been floundering for nearly two decades) makes a passable Walter, although his character isn’t necessarily as relatable as it should be.


A toned down Kristen Wiig makes a likable Cheryl, and her sweetness helps overcome her role’s blandness. Patton Oswalt is amusing as the eHarmony representative who prods Walter to beef up his dating profile. Adam Scott’s obnoxious corporate transition manager role is too stereotypical. And Shirley MacLaine and Kathryn Hahn are charming as Walter’s mother and sister respectively.


The actors have chemistry, the special effects are impressive (albeit excessive), the locations are exotic, and the cinematography is polished. Yet, despite all its earnestness, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is too lifeless. Perhaps the filmmakers have focused too much on its visuals and not enough on its soul, and therein lies the problem. Its underlying, uplifting message should have been inspiring, and if the film could have drawn us in emotionally and made us empathize with its characters, then it would have been a triumph. Instead it gave us something beautiful to look at, but it didn’t give us enough to feel about. And that is why this cinematic Walter Mitty probably won’t leave nearly as lasting an impression as his literary, textual counterpart did.


Pretty as a picture, and nothing more