Release date: December 25
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of Ben Stiller’s finest works to date, both as a director and an actor. Some would argue that it is hard to beat his comedic performance and direction in the 2001 cult-classic Zoolander, but the films are incomparable. The former is a parody of the fashion industry and Mitty a surprising profound fantasy and adventure film. Mitty also triumphs in pretty much every department and shows that recently Stiller is at his best when he isn’t being funny.
It is immediately obvious that Stiller’s recent work with indie director Noah Baumbach in Greenberg and the upcoming While We’re Young has been quite a major influence in his style. This is most prominent with regards to the soundtrack. It is full of the acoustic guitars of Jose Gonzalez and Junip, but interspersed with the occasional epic feel-good hit from Of Monsters and Men and Arcade Fire as well. They blend together seamlessly to become a phenomenal OST and add a sense of grandeur to the movie, especially when Mitty is out of his comfort zone.
The opening credits are brilliant and also reminiscent of independent films. It is indicative of Wes Anderson’s movies; again who Stiller has previously collaborated with. The way that the production companies and film titles spread out across the various buildings and surroundings that make up the opening sequence is similar to Anderson outings.
Although based on James Thurber’s short story and the original of the same name in 1947, this film is quite different to both. Steve Conrad’s screenplay is excellent and has Mitty travelling all over the Arctic Circle and Himalaya’s trying to locate photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) who had sent him some negatives for him to develop. Mitty believes that he has mislaid one specific photo entitled “The Quintessence of Life”, which his boss wants to go on the cover of the final issue of his company’s magazine and so he goes on the hunt for O’Connell.
Predictably Mitty tries new experiences and things that he has never done before on his adventure and learns about life and finding himself. He is also driven by one of the main reoccurring points of the film, that his profile page on dating site e-harmony is very bare due to his lack of previous accomplishments. This is an extremely mechanical plot device which also serves as the very tenuous link to why he is doing all of this in the first place.
There is a slightly less contrived reason as to why he is initially on the site though. He is trying to woo his work colleague (Kristen Wiig) and so sets up his page to try and impress her with his achievements, or in this instance, lack of. What annoyingly follows are various calls that Mitty receives from one of e-harmony’s representatives, Todd (Patton Oswalt). He calls throughout the film to see what Mitty is up to so that he can jazz up his profile and make him more appealing. Todd serves almost as Mitty’s guardian angel and is additionally an integral part of the narrative.
E-Harmony aren’t the only advertising in this film either; there are several shameless uses of it. A nostalgic story of how Mitty grew up working in Papa John’s, a KFC restaurant is focused upon and there is proof that even in darkest Greenland, there still manages to be a Heineken sign.
Once you get past this though you realise that this is actually a great life-affirming movie. There are obvious similarities to Forest Gump and it also calls to mind elements of Into the Wild as well. At the beginning of the film, Mitty is having daydreams about what his life would be like if he took a little bit of risk and was spontaneous. Most of these are shown in the trailer and although these do thankfully stop quite quickly, they serve as another motivation for him to go on his travels. The reason that the film works so well is because his story connects on a base level to the audience and reflects what we all think about on a daily basis if we just had the balls to change our lives.
Reading through the 20-year history of its production, Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson and Sacha Baron Cohen have all been offered the part of Walter Mitty, showing that apparently the producers wanted a comedian in the lead. Stiller does inevitably fall into that category but it is his underplaying of Mitty that is when he is at his best. The most surprising thing of all is that frankly it’s almost impossible to see anyone else better suited for the role once already seen. Maybe even behind the camera in this regard as well.