Ben Stiller’s new film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty suffers from something I would call “Zach Snyder Syndrome.” It’s where a film is loaded with moments that can be powerful and emotionally moving when edited nicely together with a fitting piece of music, but when taken in for 2 hours within the context of an attempt at story can be…not quite powerful or emotionally moving. This can result in a trailer that is unexpectedly powerful and eye-grabbing, but the final results with the movie can’t hold up to that kind of shallowness.
For those that haven’t seen that (admittedly moving) trailer, the film follows Walter Mitty (played by Stiller), a mild-mannered photo person at Life Magazine who’s prone to daydreaming a life infinitely more exciting than his real one, whether that’s making a joke about the new asshole boss’s stupid beard, or fighting said asshole boss in an epic, very CGI chase scene that makes heavy usage of a Stretch Armstrong™ doll (more on that in a bit). But when Mitty has to find a missing negative to be used for the final print issue of Life, it sends him on a real life adventure just as fantastical as his daydreams, teaching him stuff about living life and other hunky dory stuff like that. There are other details and twists to the plot, and the actual structure of the film is by-the-numbers yet solid, but not worth lingering on. The film has some other issues that keep it from living up to its potential.
I remember when the film premiered in October at the New York Film Festival there were criticisms that the film played more like a commercial than a real film, and there’s truth to that in two ways. For starters, the film often feels literally like a commercial peddling products, with the largest amount of awkward product placements in recent memory. The first five minutes of the film is devoted to Ben Stiller trying to leave a “wink” for a coworker on eHarmony™, and from there we’re informed that the site has the best dating algorithm of any site, that an awesome profile can get all the ladies trying to “wink” at you, and that it only costs a few hundred dollars a year. Considering Ben Stiller’s past work you’d think this was satire, but it’s all played straight, and sits among other extended plugs for Stretch Armstrong™, Papa Johns™, and a couple others I can barely recall, to the point that they all play like a 30 Rock-esque parody.
But even from a technical standpoint the film seems to have taken the aesthetics and thematic depth of a slick commercial. The film is often beautiful to look at, whether we’re in the offices of Life Magazine or in the mountains of Iceland, with nearly every shot perfectly framed and saturated with all kinds of color. And the music choices, from songs like Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” to pieces of Theodore Shapiro’s score, are well-paired with the imagery to elicit a couple goosebump-inducing moments. But are those goosebumps actually well-earned, or just being cheaply deployed the way that Clydesdale Budweiser ad made you misty-eyed?
More troubling is the characterizations of the characters, which despite occupying a two hour film never achieve much more depth than your average protagonist in a Super Bowl ad. Walter Mitty is something of a cipher, the kind of leading character that’s suppose to be just vague and non-threatening enough to be relatable, but ends up just not leaving much of an impression. And the side characters never achieve much depth outside of how they relate to our character, whether it’s Kristen Wiig as the kind-hearted love interest or Adam Scott as the douchiest McDouchePants boss to appear in a major Hollywood film in recent memory.
In fact, the character with the most depth might end up being Sean O’Connell, the photographer of the sought-for negative who doesn’t show up until near the very end of the film, portrayed by Sean Penn. For what’s suppose to be a larger-than-life role, Penn plays the character in a refreshingly subtle manner, and deploys the morals of the film in a manner that, while obvious, manage to be somewhat moving because it’s so stripped down compared to everything around it. He also gets a number of deadpan laughs that caught me off-guard, considering how serious of an actor he’s become in recent memory.
These issues, and the movie as a whole really, are all odd coming from Ben Stiller. Though I haven’t seen his ‘90s films Reality Bites and The Cable Guy, his two most recent films, Zoolander and Tropic Thunder, are both among the sharpest and funniest comedies of the 2000s, relentless in a way rarely seen in big-budget Hollywood comedies. Both films weren’t afraid to make their characters as outlandishly ridiculous (and sometimes unlikeable) as humanly possible. Walter Mitty seems to go in the opposite direction, being unafraid to be as sentimental and wishy-washy as humanly possible, and this might be the biggest pro the film has: the emotion behind the film, underneath the Papa John’s name-dropping and shoddy character work, you get the sense that Stiller really does want to move and inspire his audience. I just wish he had picked a more genuine aesthetic to match that intent.
[author image=”https://scontent-a.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ash4/1000826_905133195637_1150756764_n.jpg” ]Jonathan Boehle is a contributor to AwardWatch and a moderator of the AW forums.[/author]