One of the great cornerstones of cinema has always been a grand sense of imagination. This is not a concept that is limited to just the more fantastical genres, such as science-fiction or fantasy, but rather all films that seek to give the audience a lasting and memorable experience. In the case of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” screenwriter Steve Conrad has to pull double duty with his own imagination not only to delve into the daydreams of an average man who hasn’t done much that is noteworthy in his life, but also to take the story further once it makes the leap from the imaginary to reality, which can sometimes be just as extraordinary.
Based on the classic short story by James Thurber, the film revolves around Walter (Ben Stiller), a man with a wildly-active imagination who works as a negative-handler for Life magazine. Lately, he finds himself attracted to a co-worker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), going so far as to set up a dating profile online in an attempt to connect with her, but given his rather plain life up to this point, there’s not much to say. Meanwhile, the magazine is preparing to print its last issue, which will feature a front page photograph from their star photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), who has just sent his most recent set of negatives to Walter. The problem is that Walter can’t find the specific negative that’s going to be used, which sets him off on an adventure in which he attempts to find the elusive, globetrotting Sean. His life may have been plain before, with the only thrills occurring in the daydreams he invents for himself, but he quickly finds out that nothing compares with the real thing.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a fascinating film not only because of its intriguing exploration of the imagination and how someone can change from an introvert to an extravert when the situation demands it, but also in how it tells the story using distinct genres through its three-act structure. When we first meet Walter, we can clearly see that he’s a loner with an imagination that runs wild, causing him to “zone out” several times a day while he goes into his own private world of daydreams. These sequences give the film most of its comedy, being that they’re so utterly absurd.
For instance, his first daydream has him diving into a burning building, rescuing a dog, and inventing an artificial limb for the canine on the way down the steps, while another has him battling his new manager in the confines of an elevator. So as not to be limited to just one genre (absurdist humor), this portion of the film also begins to introduce the romantic subplot as Walter starts to connect with Cheryl.
As we move into the middle act, Walter’s epic adventure begins, taking him to Greenland, Iceland, and many other places. It would be fair to label this part of the film a travelogue, but it’s hard to complain too much when there’s such beautiful scenery to be found. It’s also fair to say that this is where the film begins to slow down a bit. There’s still enough to pull the story forward as the audience roots for Walter to locate Sean, but it doesn’t quite keep the energy of the first act flowing.
The third act is basically an all-out drama as it ties up most of the loose ends, the energy having pretty much faded away completely. It’s not that the film has become boring at this point, but more so that the spark it started with in its promising beginning has gone out, finishing in a somewhat sentimental fashion. While the middle of the film may have been a little slow, it at least had a large amount of real spectacle (as opposed to the imaginary spectacle of Walter’s daydreams), an element that the third act contains a little of, but for the most part it reduces itself to the ordinary after having been rather extraordinary for much of the story’s telling.
It should be noted that Ben Stiller pulls double-duty as both star and director, and while the film has mixed results overall, there’s no denying that it is beautifully made. In the past, Stiller has given us some terrible films, including “The Cable Guy,” “Zoolander,” and “Tropic Thunder,” but with “Walter Mitty” he shows a lot of promise for being able to make much better films than he has been. He obviously has a lot of talent in the field, he just hasn’t been getting the right material to prove it.
While “Walter Mitty” could have been stronger in its latter portion, I still found it to be a rather enjoyable film. It’s hilarious, heartwarming, gorgeous, and exciting, elements that are all rolled into one extraordinary story. In exploring its tale in these various ways, it keeps things fresh for the audience, changing things up as it goes along so that they don’t get lulled over with one flat telling of this epic journey. In a sense, it’s a perfect fit given that change is one of the film’s main themes. Walter goes through a remarkable change, and thanks to the quality craftsmanship of the film, we end up feeling like we’ve gone through it right along with him. 3/4 stars.
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