‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ Review

Published 8 months ago by , Updated August 22nd, 2014 at 12:38 am,

Ben Stiller Secret Life of Walter Mitty Life Magazine The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Review

Ben Stiller plays the titular character in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a Life Magazine employee who spends much of his day “zoned out,” oblivious to the world around him while fantasizing about adventures and endeavors that he’s too afraid to chase after. Paralyzed by family responsibilities and the daily work grind, Walter finds solace in his day dreams, where he rescues dogs from burning buildings, pummels his overbearing boss in a cartoonish street fight, and woos the woman of his dreams, accounting staff member Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig).

However, when it is announced that Life Magazine will cease publication of physical issues, in a move to the online market, famed Life photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) sends in a final cover image that he claims will capture the  “quintessence” of the iconic magazine. Unfortunately, Walter cannot find “Negative 25,” and with his job and the respect of Cheryl on the line, he is forced out into the world, away from his fantasies, to find O’Connell, track down the missing picture, and live-up to the Life Magazine motto: “To see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to, to draw closer, to see and be amazed.

Ben Stiller Secret Life of Walter Mitty The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Review

Ben Stiller as Walter in ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’

After James Thurber published his 1939 short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” the property has seen multiple adaptations – most notably a 1947 film (starring Danny Kaye) as well as a broadway show. Screenwriter Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness) updated the setting and storyline for the 2013 version, loosely incorporating Thurber’s core concept of a day dreaming protagonist along with elements of the 1947 film, to tell an all-new Walter Mitty story with a variety of modern references and story beats.

Stiller not only stars but also directs the film – which, coupled with some of the zanier fantasy moments, might lead moviegoers to assume that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is another one of the actor’s over-the-top comedy offerings (i.e. Zoolander or Tropic Thunder). Yet, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a surprisingly impactful and uplifting film experience on par with some of the year’s best indie offerings – one that is elevated further by the sharp eye of Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano).

Ben Stiller Kristen Wiig Secret Life of Walter Mitty The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Review

Kristen Wiig as Cheryl Melhoff in ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’

Viewers who are expecting an adaptation of the short story or a remake of the earlier film production will find that this iteration of Walter Mitty is almost entirely new. As mentioned, Thurber’s clever premise remains the same, a man who escapes into fantasies to avoid taking risks in daily life, but Conrad has crafted his telling of the story, and any thematic overtures, around current cultural mainstays – such as dating websites and the transition of old media into the online space.

The original narrative touched on similar motifs of escapism and living, but with the Life Magazine backdrop (and subsequent search for a world-hopping photojournalist), Conrad and Stiller inject the setup with added layers that provide a smart reason for Mitty to get out of his head and actually step into the world. A few threads parrot tropes in prior journey of self-empowerment plots but, even when the story borders on familiar territory, the filmmakers still present plenty of moving parallels to the Life Magazine mantra itself, “To see Life; see the world.”

Sean Penn Secret Life of Walter Mitty The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Review

Sean Penn as Sean O’Connell in ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’

Previously, Stiller has proven himself as a solid drama performer in projects that went, for the most part, under the casual moviegoer radar (most recently in Greenberg). As a result, some viewers will be surprised to discover that playing a convincing and relatable everyman, rather than an over-the-top cartoon character, is fully within the actor’s repertoire. Stiller’s take on Walter Mitty isn’t going to win him an Academy Award nomination but there’s a subtlety and sincerity in his execution that is right at home with the film’s enjoyable balance of humor, philosophizing, and drama. It’s a convincing performance, one that Stiller should be proud to include in his filmography – and one that should keep audiences rooting for Walter throughout his transformative journey.

Wiig is also a success as Cheryl, stepping outside of her usual sketch-comedy wheelhouse to play a pragmatic single-mother – and the focus of Walter’s affections. Wiig and Stiller might not have the kind of pulse-pounding chemistry that viewers expect in modern movie romance, but her turn as Cheryl provides a sweet and fitting supporter in the primary plot – which is, first and foremost, about forcing Walter out of fantasy life and into a real adventure.

Adam Scott Secret Life of Walter Mitty The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Review

Adam Scott as Ted Hendricks in ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’

Adam Scott (along with his beard) is another highlight, portraying Life Magazine acquisition manager, Ted Hendricks. Hendricks is pulled into several of Walter’s fantasy scenes, including that aforementioned street brawl, meaning that Scott is a scene-stealer in both the real and fantasy world. Finally, rounding out the supporting cast is Sean Penn, Kathryn Hahn, and Shirley MacLaine who all enjoy key moments in the spotlight – and are welcome additions in the evolution of Walter Mitty.

Especially critical moviegoers will likely be able to pick out minor shortcomings in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, as the film can (at times) be held back by routine story beats and solid (but not phenomenal) performances. Yet, despite any setbacks, Stiller’s adaptation is an inspiring and beautifully shot character adventure – one that even manages to get a worthwhile message across without becoming too preachy. In a story about going into the unknown, Stiller succeeds at delivering a film that, as Walter’s online dating guru (played by Patton Oswalt) suggests, can be both “noteworthy and mentionable.”

If you’re still on the fence about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, check out the trailer below:

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty runs 114 minutes and is Rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence. Now playing in theaters.

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below.

Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future reviews, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.

Our Rating:

3.5 out of 5
(Very Good)

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21 Comments

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  1. Haven’t seen it yet but the 5 minute previews I’ve seen at the cinema since mid October have been packed with funny moments, touching pieces of drama and amazingly shot landscapes.

    It definitely tempted me to go watch, though not at Christmas.

  2. I liked the movie very much. It is visually beautiful and entertaining. Good solid performances by everyone. The direction and storytelling keep us in sync with the mood of the character at all times and are very engaging. A very good effort by Stiller behind the camera. Highly recommended this Christmas.

  3. I very much enjoyed this movie. It was a great story, with a happy ending. The acting was good, and the scenes and imagery were awesome. When I walked out of the movie theater, I found myself feeling like I should be more willing to pursue interesting things in faraway places, things dangerous to come to, and “to draw closer, to see and be amazed”!

  4. I have very much lived Ben Stiller the director. He kind of reminds me of Affleck in which he started to really shine when he was in charge of the movie. Great movie and I highly recommend people to see it. It’s not an Oscar worthy movie but it’s still great IMO

  5. I loved The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty and so did my entire family. It reminded me of why I love going to the movies. This is one you have to see in a theatre and the bigger the better. The movie is filmed on such a grand scale that it should be experienced as the film makers intended. It transports you to another world which is both epic and human. The story and visuals are beautiful and you’ll walk out with a smile on your face- what else could you want from a movie?

  6. I thought it was an enjoyable movie. The ending was lame which sorta made it just meh for me. There’s now way the photo on the final cover could be negative #25, since the picture is of him looking at the contact sheet of the film that includes negative #25. So…how could Sean O’Connell have shot that while he was in Iceland etc while Mitty was starting to try and find it. That was lame. Unless by some coincidence Mitty always sat outside the office just ran coming looking at contact sheets of pics. The continuity was just so off it took the movie way down for me. :( but I enjoyed the acting and it was just good. Nothing to write home about. Wait for the DVD.

    • Actually, as far as I know he wasn’t looking at the contact sheet at that time, he was looking at the 3 good pictures looking for clues. Also, his mother telling him that Sean visited her asking for his schedule leads me to believe that inspecting the contact sheets at the fountain is just part of Walter’s routine and Sean photographed him doing so prior to the scene in the film.

    • @beej – I agree the ending was impossible. Frame 24 was the thumb in Iceland and frame 26 was his mother’s piano taken while he was looking for frame 25 which is himself looking at the incomplete contact sheet. No way that frame could have been taken unless Sean O’Connel traveled to the future. On top of that, only one other photo taken, by his mother, on the roll in the time between Greenland/Iceland and NY apartment?

  7. It was great from start to finish. Entertaining because it was real world, a dreamer guy like Walter Mitty could exist. It’s was a short story covered in High school because the movie was coming out. The price was reasonable since I didn’t to pay for the 3-D feature. We were going to see 47 Ronin. It was going to be $45 for 3 people, that’s to much. I’m glad we picked Walter Mitty instead of Blood and Gore.

  8. Absolutely loved this film. I left feeling refreshed and inspired. So nice to see characters that are relatable; after all, the search to find signifigance is within each of us. Ben Stiller did an outstanding job as both director and star. Can’t wait to see it again!

  9. Can anyone help me find out the last caption of the cover photo of life magazine’s final issue? Thanks!

    • “The Making of a Brave Man” i believe

  10. Thanks shacasha!!! But I’m pertaining to the final issue of life magazine in the movie “the secret life of walter mitty” where walter appears in the cover…it goes something like…”this issue is dedicated to the men who work hard for LIFE magazine….” Thanks!!!!! ;)

    • Hi Mr_Elmo
      Did you find the picture of Ben Stiller on the Life magazine cover? Seems the picture no where can be found. An awesome picture

  11. I really don’t like Ben Stiller movies, except perhaps Tropic Thunder and Dodgeball, but this looks pretty entertaining. I never liked Adam Sandlers films, but enjoyed Punch Drunk Love. I never liked Will Farrells films, but enjoyed Stranger Than Fiction. I never liked Jim Carreys films, but enjoyed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the Truman Show, as well as Kick-Ass 2, and I suppose Liar Liar, but I digress. The point is, this seems to be Stillers unusual role which has worked for comedic actors in the past and I’m glad he has stepped out of his comfort zone.

  12. A movie with an intent to inspire and uplift, with brilliant cinematography and a killer Soundtrack. How could you not like it? Seems the critics aren’t onboard but I think this will go down on many people’s all-time fave lists for its feelgood nature.
    Touches on some great “Life” themes, a pun they surely intended.
    Stiller always saw himself as a Director and I think he will have a long career as one when he decides to. He’s working with great directors like Noah Baumbach now so I’m sure will see more of these well-marketed Indie products soon. He sure does like his hyperreality, a great subject he tackles well.

  13. I really liked this movie and can’t believe it has had such mediocre reviews. This was a very ambitious film, and despite the sci-fi/fantasy element it was a very humanizing film, too. Loved the music, too especially all the Junip/Jose Gonzalez they used – was great to hear “Far Away” twice (when Walter drives through Greenland in search of Sean and the missing photo and then when Walter rides down Icelandic mountain on the long board he traded Stretch Armstrong for) and also “Don’t Let It Pass” (when Walter and Sean have joined the Sherpa soccer match)

    Also a side note, this was one of the first films I liked Kristen Wiig in. She didn’t just play her one nervous stock character.

  14. Today, I went to the beachfront with my children.
    I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell to her ear
    and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.

    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is totally off
    topic but I had to tell someone!

  15. Does anyone know where or what issue the final photo #25 is based on?
    I know I have seen it before.
    While searching, I too noticed all the high praise personal comments
    and mediocre big time reviews and really enjoyed the film.
    On a personal note, I traveled for the first time
    to about a dozen fly-in only communities in Northern Canada in Oct. Nov.
    The film captured the same feeling of adventure and desolation.
    I flew into the base at Red Lake 4 times on the first week of November and probably spent more time there that week than anyone else except for a couple of girls at the counter. On the Sunday a plane crashed and killed 5. All I can say is, it felt all too real when Walter jumped on the helicopter with a drunk pilot.

  16. This is a very good movie. It is a slow start, kind of hard to follow, until Walter hits the road. Then it takes off and becomes quite amazing. At first I was comparing it to the original with Danny Kaye, which I remember seeing as a kid. This is a very different movie. But I think it turns out being better, even if I miss the spy action of the first. This one has more heart.

  17. Good flick but its one of those: I have to sit through 45 minutes of torture for it to make sense and be a good film.

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