The Secret Life of Walter Mitty ★★★½

Ben Stiller’s newest directorial effort has a lot going for it. It’s charming, visually and sonically beautiful, and it is - above all else - wholly uplifting. It’s a shame that for all of these wonderful traits, the film is almost entirely superficial.

The film’s primary message is one of embracing life and engaging with random opportunities and chance experiences in incredibly fulfilling ways. On the surface, it achieves its goal. You will come away from this film - just as with any film shot in gorgeous locations - with the desire to travel and seek new experiences. For me, it made me want to return to Iceland (which appears to be a visual stand-in for both Greenland and northern Pakistan, when convenient) more than anything else. But it never gives you a sense that these experiences allow for any great transcendence or revelation that seem to matter to our protagonist. Maybe that fault rest squarely on the shoulders of Ben Stiller who doesn’t have enough range to actually deliver the emotions we need to see a real transformation in his character, but maybe it’s a bigger problem.

Walter Mitty's daydream sequences are imaginative and fun, but so too are his real life experiences as the film's story continues to propel him through adventure after adventure. It's a shame, then, that this transition from the virtual to the real is only reinforced by one line of dialogue. And it’s never expressed in the behaviour of the main character, either - Walter returns from his adventures changed, but beyond his meekness being replaced with confidence, he doesn’t seem to embody fulfillment or demonstrate personal growth. Just look at his interaction with Patton Oswalt’s character - an absurdly convenient construct in its own right - immediately following the critical emotional apex of the entire film. It’s cold, even brash, and displays none of the qualities we need to feel in a character who has in any way transcended. This relationship exemplifies the problems with the film - it’s narrative structure is so incredibly linear to the point of being obvious or transparent, while the characters and their relationships are opaque and obtuse. It’s a dichotomy that doesn’t allow for a consistent and all-around balanced piece of storytelling.

The supporting characters are all one-dimensional, and the only character we need to absolutely need to see dimensionalized rarely is. In fact, there’s really only one meaningful interaction in the entire film that shows any depth or life-altering gravity (it involves Sean Penn, but I won’t spoil its content here), however its relation to the drive of the main message is perpendicular. It’s fulfilling, and it’s not entirely out of place, but it’s a distinctly different moral than the one the film builds towards.

These problems aside, the film’s overall style blends beautiful imagery with fantastic music to create something worth watching for aesthetics alone. It becomes slightly arduous when Stiller feels that many of the visual sequences will work better as overly expositional music-video montages, but on the whole, the film is well-paced and - logic aside - fairly well-grounded in a sensibility that feels honest. The tone set by the film feels genuine in the way that all Stiller films do, and my problems with the narrative arc and characters are probably mostly the fault of a script by Steve Conrad, who’s built a career writing uplifting-but-superficial scripts just like this one.

I went into this film expecting pretty much exactly what I got out of it. Walter Mitty might have been truly a truly exceptional experience. But not with this script, and probably not with this director.

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