“In short, Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty feels like a motivational poster come to life…”

The original Secret Life of Walter Mitty, that dates back to 1947 and is likely forgotten by the common public, making this remake seem like a fresh idea, was nothing more than a cheery piece of fantasy that was nice for a quiet evening but nothing really more than a small little endeavor. Clearly, Ben Stiller thought much more of the material than a simple, silly little farce as he maximizes the story’s ambitions visually, thematically, and tonally sixty-six years later.

The story has changed quite a bit, however, focusing on the title character (Ben Stiller, who, in my opinion, fits the role nicely), this time a negative assets manager at “Life” magazine. The company, however, is undergoing massive downsizing by Walter’s arrogant schmuck of a boss (Adam Scott) because the magazine is due to print its final issue before continuing its run online. An elusive photojournalist named Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) has sent a negative to the company that he believes captures the “quintessence” of the magazine’s run and should be utilized as the magazine’s final front cover in print under the name “negative 25.”

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Directed by
Ben Stiller
Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Jon Daly
Release Date
25 December 2013
Steve’s Grade: C

Walter is a meticulous manager when it comes to negatives, never losing a print in his sixteen years of employment. When “negative 25” is nowhere to be found, Walter utilizes clues left by O’Connell to track down his whereabouts in order to achieve the negative, believing Sean misplaced it and not himself; all while while keeping his boss in the dark, his office love-interest (Kristen Wiig) up to date, and his tendencies to daydream to a minimum.

In short, Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty feels like a motivational poster come to life, down to the film’s inclusion of blatant, unsubtle sentences encouraging seizing the day and taking all that life has to offer. This film wants you to know its message inside and out by the end credits. Metaphors and symbolism are used as obtrusively as if someone sitting next to you is defining each and everything on screen, quotes discussing handling life’s challenges and everyday occurrences appear frequently throughout the film, and Walter’s daydreams might as well be advertisements telling audience members to go out and experience all that today has to offer.

This becomes droning and didactic, to say the least, nonetheless artificial and unengaging. After a while, I began to try and brush off the film’s attempt at schooling me in living like I was dying to try and appreciate the cinematography, the visuals, the performances, and the film’s imagination, all of which are top-notch. To say the least, this is Stiller’s most accomplished film from a directorial standpoint. The shots are polished, seemingly planned and outlined in a very elaborate manner to include every fine detail. The slickness of Walter’s daydreams are remarkable, much more openly adventurous and bold than in the original Norman Z. McLeod film.

However, I’ll be the first to say that the film’s adventure sequences kind of wore on me after a while. They almost became showcases for remarkable special effects rather than scenes that show the true power and adventure of Walter Mitty. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact wrongdoing on Stiller’s or writer Steve Conrad’s part, but I think maybe they got lost in their own vision, turning a “seize the day” message into a redundant example of conquering the impossible and actually encouraging people to say you’ve “been there and done that.” As inspirational as some may find it, I question to them, how will they live their life differently after seeing this?

That’s not to say the adventure sequences don’t have a great sense of lust for life in them. The song “Major Tom” likely hasn’t gotten better use in a film in years since The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and certain scenes make for remarkably fun sensory experiences. Consider when Ben Stiller is skateboarding down a long, winding road, with breathtaking scenery at his back and sides, while the incredibly moving, infectious song “Dirty Paws” by Of Monsters and Men blares in the background. The film needed more scenes like this, evoking wonder and ease rather than ones where the filmmakers clearly are trying to bring a message full-circle to their viewers in a blunt fashion.

Perhaps big marketing that detailed the grand scale of Stiller’s approach put the film on a pedestal of expectations the final project simply could never live up to. Ben Stiller does fine work as Mitty, and the incredibly landscapes are worth the price of admission, even if you keep in mind you may just be looking at meticulously-perfected computer imagery. It’s hard to hate The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, mainly because its message is so honest and its portrayal of an underappreciated soul is so sympathetic and affecting, but it’s hard to sit idly by and let those characteristics take over when the film has to resort to showing you quotes on-screen in an attempt to further brings its message to light.

Review by Steve Pulaski, Lead Film Critic