All words: Ross Bonaime
The constructions of Ben Stiller’s directional efforts have always been about the battle between perception and reality. From the creation of a reality show that doesn’t reflect the truth in Reality Bites, the blurring of fiction and the real world in The Cable Guy, to the faux war of Tropic Thunder. Even his acting career has shown this to be true, with parts like a talking lion or a night guardsmen in a magical museum that display him as the lovable family film guy, to the works of directions like Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, where he portrays the darker characters, showing the more interesting side of what he can do. For Stiller, there is the world we live in and the world we create.
With The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Stiller’s fifth film as a director, he tries to meld both his family friendly and more artistic side with his most straightforward film about the conflict of perception and reality. Stiller also plays the titular character of Mitty, who has worked in the photo lab of Life magazine for a decade and a half, yet constantly daydreams about a more exciting version of his life. Recently these daydreams have focused more on Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), who has also started working at Life, but he’s too afraid to ask her out, even opening an eHarmony account in the hopes that she’ll come across him and fall in love.
Mitty has balanced his fantasies and his mundane reality for years, but with the arrival of the douchey, bearded Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), Life will soon be closing. That’s right, Life is running out of time. With the final issue weeks away, Mitty receives a reel of film from world famous photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), yet it is missing the one picture that O’Connell believes is his greatest work and ideal for the final cover. So Mitty tasks himself to track down O’Connell by traveling across the world and thereby living in his fantasies for once instead of just imagining them.
Stiller knows that audiences have seen this type of adventure before, where a character must leave where he is comfortable and venture into the unknown to become who he truly is, and even pokes fun of movies like that in an unusual The Curious Case of Benjamin Button parody. But Stiller also shows a lack of trusting his audience by really hammering home the moral of the story with some heavy-handed filmmaking.
Amongst a beautifully shot film with gorgeous scenic views and cinematography, Stiller has life lessons strewn on the sides of buildings and among snow covered mountains, in case you can’t comprehend what you’re supposed to be feeling. Feel good quotes and journal entries pop up all over the place as quick Cliff Notes for your viewing experience that only distract from the true wonderful moments that should be experienced.
Stiller is suitable for the role of Mitty, with the subtlety and melancholy that has made some of his less mainstream works fascinating to watch, but also with plenty of the notable mannerisms that made Stiller a comedic star. Many of the minor characters aren’t that fleshed out, which can be understood since this is Mitty’s story. Yet when you have Patton Oswalt, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Jon Daly, Kristen Wiig and many other great comedians playing characters without much depth, it is slightly disappointing. Especially when there were clearly chances to see further into their lives, and maybe even see deeper into how they utilize their own escapism, it all seems like a missed opportunity.
Stiller’s films always feel like they’re just missing that one thing that will make everything come together. Most of Stiller’s films have felt so close to greatness, but can never quite achieve such status. For every brilliant war parody idea strewn with self-insulting award jokes, there’s always a fat, sweaty, dancing Tom Cruise to muck everything up. Like Mitty, Stiller is always chasing after that one tiny element that turns everything that came before it into magic, yet all his films always leave that nagging feeling that something is lacking. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty comes so close to combining the elements of Stiller that make him not only a star but also an interesting actor, yet it’s bogged down by over-explained ideology and lacking characters. Hopefully one day Stiller can track down that extra piece and make something truly great since he’s already so close.