With The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, it was looking like Ben Stiller finally wanted to get recognised as the talented director he genuinely is, giving a more serious, restrained performance in the process. The trailers for the film promised a deadpan sense of humour, thrilling visuals and a positive message.
The plot of the film sees Walter (Stiller) working as the negative assets manager of Life Magazine, which is shockingly still around, apparently. The magazine is taken over by a bunch of patronising dorks who are planning to lay off everybody and redirect everything online but Walter has misplaced the cover photograph provided by Sean Penn's photographer so it's up to him to go out and find the adventurous fellow in order to somehow recover the lost picture. Oh, and there's also a subplot in which Walter likes his co-worker Cheryl (played by Kristen Wiig) and sends her a "wink" on an internet dating site before a guy working at eHarmony keeps calling him wherever he is to help boost his profile.
Right off the bat, it's obvious that this type of movie is brand new territory for Stiller. Long gone is the dark comedy of The Cable Guy, the gross-out lols of Tropic Thunder and the cartoonish madness of Zoolander: this is the comedian's Stranger Than Fiction or The Truman Show. Walter's seemingly morose reality is peppered with over-the-top daydreams which he zones out into every so often. Now, unfortunately, if you saw the film's 5 minute preview at the cinema, you've basically seen the entire film and most of those daydreams in their entirety so don't expect too many surprises. It doesn't help that a major third act reveal is predictable about 10 minutes into the movie. The film goes for a whimsical fable with something to say but the story is told in such a messy way that it becomes unclear as to what the film is saying besides clichéd fortune cookie messages like "live in the moment" or "go out, see the world". Some of these ideas contradict each other to the point where they kinda cancel each other out.
The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is a well-meaning flick but one with a confused outlook. One second it's glorifying leaving your home for adventure in what is essentially travel porn, the next it's telling you to stay home and enjoy the little things. Maybe the film should have been more concerned with developing a multi-faceted character rather than making him all about this one woman he happens to like and about this one macguffin he's set out to find.
The film does have its good moments and its funny moments but they can honestly be counted on one hand and don't exactly gel with the rest of the film. A whole joke is dedicated to The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and, as genuinely funny as it is, it's much sillier than anything else in the movie and making fun of that film's surreal plot feels a bit rich seeing as this is exactly the same type of deal. Another entertaining moment involves Walter and his boss (a grotesquely slimy and bearded Adam Scott) fighting over a Stretch Armstrong of all things. We follow Walter as he travels to Greenland, fights off a shark, then narrowly escapes a volcano eruption in Iceland before ending up in Afghanistan and the Himalayas. Travelling is apparently dirt cheap, always involves an exciting, perilous event and is always deeply meaningful in that world. Yes the locations filmed here are beautiful and yes travelling can be fun but the film's approach is so preachy that it ends up sending you mixed signals about the whole thing.
Hell, the main thing you'll take away from this whole adventure is Papa Johns, one of the many brands shamelessly plugged in this movie. Before you ask: yes, McDonald's and their slogan do indeed get a mention. The film's disjointed pace is also incredibly distracting: the scenes with Wiig seem to last for hours whereas the action scenes are brief and, at times, completely rushed. The volcano eruption seems to have been cut entirely for no reason at all and the Afghanistan/Himalayas trip is told through a montage, a series of dissolves which makes it feel like they're playing the trailer all over again. Perhaps cutting the whole corny romance subplot altogether would have allowed for more time in better, more fun scenes. Sure we would have missed out on a Patton Oswalt cameo but hey, can't have everything.
Ben Stiller's film is one that's hard to hate but also one that's hard to love so it should open some debates among moviegoers. I, for one, really needed it to keep a toe firmly set in some sort of realistic cynicism and, more importantly, not talk down to its audience, trying so hard to be cute and whimsical.
Although it's visually appealing and has its moments, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is a messy, preachy, often cheesy effort. That said, it's an ambitious attempt at telling a meaningful, life-affirming story, which is more than I can say about Little Fockers.
Whether you end up liking it or not, at least the film will make you think a bit so there's always that.