NYFF Review: 'Secret Life of Walter Mitty' is Stiller's Big Leap Forward
by Joey Magidson
October 5, 2013
I'm a daydreamer. From as early as I can remember I've known myself to get lost in thought, even if it's just some silly fantasy. As a kid, I'd drift during grade school and imagine the patterns of the room's wallpaper as a maze that must be traversed. On the subway here in New York City, I'll space out while gazing at the Manhattan skyline crossing the bridge into or out of Brooklyn. It happens all the time, even to this day. Why am I telling you this seemingly random bit of trivia about my life? Well, because it lies at the heart of why I fell in love with Ben Stiller's new film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty at the New York Film Festival.
Ben Stiller's latest directorial endeavor is a love letter to daydreams, the power of imagination, and how extraordinary fantasies can help liven up the reality of an everyman. Stiller plays the title character of Walter Mitty, an employee at LIFE magazine who fantasizes about doing all of the things he'd never actually do in real life. He can't work up the courage to talk to a girl in the office (played by Kristin Wiig), but when he daydreams, he's easily able to woo and sweep her off of her feet. Walter looks at photographs or even just the world around him and sees a more exciting life than the one he's living, but all of that is about to change.
When the magazine is bought and the new boss (Adam Scott) announces that the next issue will be its last, Walter's job working with the photos that freelance photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) sends in becomes more important than ever before. Sean tells Walter that one particular image is the best he's ever done and will make a perfect cover. Trouble is, Walter can't find it. With the boss breathing down his neck, he asks Cheryl for help finding Sean. When she gives him a bit of info, Walter winds up on a real adventure. Of course, his fantasies are still there to go along for the ride and push him forward on his journey.
If there's one particular strength to this movie, it's Stiller himself, both in terms of his acting and his direction. Conversely, the main flaw of the film is the screenplay that Steve Conrad wrote. While very solid and a new direction from the original Danny Kaye film or James Thurber short story, it seems unsure of itself at times. The comedy is at odds with the somewhat dramatic fable at the center of the plot as well as the mixing of several genres at once, so here and there you almost see two different movies, though it's always doubling down on the earnestness and sentimentality (which worked for me, though it won't for some others). Conrad isn't turning in bad work at all, but it just doesn't match up with what Stiller is doing.
This is easily Ben Stiller's most accomplished bit of acting and directing yet in his extensive career. His performance is incredibly sympathetic and he perfectly captures Walter's transition from ordinary and meek to extraordinary and confident. The role is outside of his normal comfort zone (which could be an issue for fans of his, but I loved Stiller stretching himself), but he captures the spirit of Walter perfectly. I know I identified with the character right from the start, which is essential in this story.
In the director's chair, Stiller conveys the emotion of the tale just right. He sucked me up right from the start and nearly brought me to tears on three separate occasions in the third act. I won't spoil when those are, but they come pretty late in the game. I've always enjoyed Stiller as a director (his past films are The Cable Guy, Zoolander, Tropic Thunder), but he truly challenged himself here and it paid major dividends.
Technically, this is an often breathtakingly beautiful movie. Aside from Gravity, I found it to be the most appealing film of the year so far on a technical level. From the fantastic production design by Jeff Mann to the alluring and confident cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh, as well as the very enjoyable score by Theodore Shapiro, they all brought their A games to work for Stiller. Dryburgh and Mann especially are nomination worthy here. Between the fantasy sequences and the location work as Walter heads abroad in search of Sean, the technical prowess of the film is on full display and is still lodged in my brain.
The supporting cast isn't as memorable as Stiller is, but Penn, Scott, and Wiig get moments to shine. They all lack the necessary screen time to leave a big mark, but this is Walter's film after all. Stiller and Wiig have solid chemistry, while Stiller and Penn share one single scene together that's among my favorite scenes in the entire movie. Other supporting performances include a criminally underused Shirley MacLaine as Walter's loving mother, Kathryn Hahn as his goofy sister, and Patton Oswalt providing comic relief as an enthusiastic customer service representative for a dating website that is fascinated by Walter. No one here is bad, but none of them match Stiller.
Any of you who have read my updated predictions here know that I have The Secret Life of Walter Mitty scoring some Oscar nominations, and I stand by that. Some will no doubt find this film to be too cheesy and reject the sentimentality of the picture, but especially the older voters in the Academy will find a lot to like here. The film definitely remains in play for a Best Picture nomination, with certain tech categories like Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, and Best Visual Effects on the table too. I'm not sure there will be widespread enough love to get Stiller in for Best Director, but he's not out of the running either.
Are there qualms about this flick that are easy to have? Of course, and besides the screenplay which I talked briefly about above, certain jokes don't land like they're intended to and there's a lot of product placement on display, but for me that all faded into the background and the emotion came forward. Like I mentioned at the beginning, I'm a daydreamer, so this was a love letter to folks like myself.
In the end, Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty beautifully conveys how important your dreams are, but also how essential it is to live your life. That may sound cheesy and ring false to some, but it worked profoundly on me. This is one of the very best films I've seen at the New York Film Festival so far and in fact it's one of my favorites of the year on the whole. It's not just NYFF good, it's best of 2013 good.
Joey's NYFF Rating: 9 out of 10
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