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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Review: Warm, Gooey, and Clumsy
Toward the end of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, we see our intrepid hero sit down with one of his most unlikely of friends and enjoy a cinnamon roll in an airport. It was during this exact moment that I suddenly saw a parallel to be drawn between the pastry and the film itself. Because, like a cinnamon roll, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a warm, gooey, and feel good treat that doesn’t really contain anything substantial, but is fun to partake of nonetheless.
Lovably pathetic from the outset, Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a 42-year-old man who suffers from “single guy who never amounted to much” syndrome. He works a dead end job, relies on awkward daydreams to pull him out of his humdrum reality, and we’re constantly bombarded with the fact that he’s shy, timid, and not really all that much of a go-getter. That is, until we see Walter make the jump from being office joke to an fearless explorer hellbent on finding the freelance photographer who seemingly lost the negative meant to be the cover of LIFE magazine’s final print issue. In an effort to save his job, appease his new boss, and win over the girl he’s chasing, Walter sets out on a globetrotting adventure to find the infamous photographer while discovering a little bit of himself along the way.
Strangely, I couldn’t help but feel like the premise for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty would have worked better as a kid’s film. A plot so rote and re-tread that it’s become stale, it stars an underdog of a main character who relies on fantasies to pull himself out of real life, fancies a girl who isn’t aware of his existence, and has to deal with a boss who is unnecessarily mean for the sake of being mean. In fact, it was the childlike qualities of the film that sometimes made it a bit off-putting, because while it did have a somewhat whimsical air to it, the mere fact that a grown man tunes out real life in favor of daydreams is more strange than endearing, and often left me wondering if Walter shouldn’t seek out some professional help.
The absolute worst part of the story is the fact that shameless product placement shows up multiple times throughout the film and are used as weak plot devices that are both completely throwaway and devoid of any real purpose. Papa Johns and the fact that Mitty worked there as a teen is brought up multiple times throughout the film and is meant to drive home the grief that Mitty went through after the death of his father. While I can appreciate some of what the film tried to do with the idea, the mere use of Papa Johns made little sense, and could just as easily have been swapped out with any generic pizza chain. Perhaps this speaks more to the film’s faulty characterization, but I didn’t care about Walter’s grief and felt more like I was watching a drawn out commercial for a cheap pizza chain.
Perhaps the most painful of all, eHarmony is used as a superfluous device with the intention of showing us how Walter’s character evolves throughout the film. In a move that made zero sense to begin with and became one of the most painful running jokes in the film, one of the workers for the online dating service keeps calling back to check in and update his profile at the most opportune of times in Mitty’s life ,allowing for Walter to brag about his most recent adventure and remind audiences of the cool things Walter is doing to become, well, cool. This was especially egregious, because it never needed to be there in the first place. In fact, Walter’s development as a character would have been more powerful had the eHarmony nonsense not been in the film at all, instead allowing us to organically enjoy Walter’s evolution from timid office worker to world traveler. But it relies much too heavily on this angle throughout the film’s entirety, often to its detriment.
For a movie hellbent on expressing itself and adamant about driving home its themes, at times the dialogue feels cringeworthy and excessively expository. Characters adhere to strict archetypes and will often divulge far more information than is even needed while interacting with each other, all for the sake of telling the audience rather than showing them. This is especially true of the scenes shared between Walter and his romantic interest Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), which were typically made up of incredibly awkward and contrived conversations consisting solely of flat, dull delivery and needlessly expository dialogue. It’s clumsy and not quite as well-constructed as it could have been, resulting in the film never rising above being mediocre. In conjunction with weak dialogue, cliches and transparent convenience take center stage in Mitty’s already strained plot, forcing the audience to buy into so many coincidences that you’re almost beaten into submission by the end of the film. From the start, you know you can count on getting a nice case of the warm fuzzies by the time the credits roll, and the story makes good on that in some of the most unbelievable and forced ways possible.
For all of its messy story elements, however, there’s still an undeniable and mostly earned sense of heart that renders Mitty endearing. While many of the plot points might be nothing short of predictable, it’s hard to not take some joy in seeing Walter overcome his fears and triumph in the face of adversity, no matter how absurd his journey might be. There’s no subtlety to its themes, no real nuance to its story elements, and no wider commentary on life outside of levels of hope that even Andy Griffith might find ridiculous. .
The film’s true brilliance, however, is found in its visuals. From gorgeous establishing shots and unique camera tricks to carefully constructed color themes, each and every frame in Walter Mitty feels deliberate and detailed in its execution, resulting in absolutely breathtaking cinematography. Much of the film is set in sterile and cool tones of grey, blue, and white in the beginning, but as Walter’s character evolves over the course of the film, more color and grandeur is inserted into the movie to help more subtlely illustrate his change and how he interacts with the world around him. At times, I was able to actually overlook some of the film’s more painful story elements because of the stunning visuals and the way each and every shot mattered to the story as a whole.
In a year where so many of our films have been tinged with darkness, Mitty is a mostly warm-hearted escape that will likely please its audience. It’s safe, it’s positive, it’s fun, and it’s not hard to get lost in the triumphs of the main character. Those who are able to overlook the predictable cliches, weak dialogue, and grating plot devices will likely find themselves entertained for the film’s 114 minute run time, but like a cinnamon roll itself, Mitty is a largely disposable work of cinema that is best enjoyed in the moment.