Warning: This review contains mild spoilers, but really, if you want a spoiler-free review of a re-imagining of a classic old movie based on a notable story from even earlier, grow up. It’s impossible.
Then again, the “remake” of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty does a lot of impossible things. First, it has busted up several of my “no way” barriers as far as my relationship with movies is concerned. They include my longstanding belief that movies based on older movies is mostly a terrible idea floated by only the laziest moviemakers. Also, nobody has the right or talent to remake anything Danny Kaye or James Stewart once was in. Finally, much as every Tom Cruise movie is Tom Cruise versus a character played by Tom Cruise, all Ben Stiller really seems to know how to play is Ben Stiller. In this messed-up trifecta, Mitty has no right to be as charming as it is.
For the absolute beginner, the story, originally by the esteemed James Thurber, involves Walter Mitty who has all the social skills of dish towel. He has just fallen into a hard-crush for an acquaintance, and his frequent lapses into fantasy daydreaming are becoming more and more distracting. Reality will intervene and he will have to become the man he dreams himself to be.
In the 2013 version, Life Magazine (of which Walter is an employee) is about to go all digital, leaving him, several friends and co-workers, and the object of his newfound affections dangerously close to being fired. Walter has just been sent his final batch of photos from superstar photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), and in the package O’Connell offers his thoughts that “image 25” is his greatest work, his “quintessence.” And yet no image 25 can be found. With everyone’s job on the line, and the new administrator/head-chopper (played by Adam Scott, doing his best Ricky Gervais-ish smarm) all too willing to fire at will, Walter somehow screws up enough courage to go seek out the missing shot.
There are so many ways all of this shouldn’t work, and yet it all miraculously does. Directed with obviously loving intentions, Stiller is much more restrained than one would presume. It should be noted that this sort of remake had been a purported pet project of Steven Spielberg’s for many years, and there are surface similarities to a Spielberg production, Joe Versus The Volcano. The movie however seems more on par with (500 Days of) Summer. Both are, at heart, romantic comedies that play with fantasy elements, if not lapsing into magical realism entirely.
With that in mind, I recall a friend who, upon his recommendation of Summer said, “If you don’t have a crush on Zooey Deschanel now, you will when this movie is done.” I’d say the exact same thing about Kristen Wiig as Cheryl, Walter’s fantasy woman. Her performance is perfectly restrained in the “reality” parts, and a tad bonkers in Walter’s fantasy parts, but you can’t help but feel drawn to her portrayal. A key scene finds Walter stuck in a Greenland bar, once again shut down with his doubts. Cheryl appears, in his mind of course, with a guitar singing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” to give Walter the courage and impetus to move forward and reject his fear. The scene is a perfect little tone poem.
I’m horribly biased toward Wiig anyhow. She could be in a movie where she was a lunatic who sets pandas and koalas on fire and I’d still find her thoroughly adorable. Even so, she wins big in this film, and you probably will develop a crush too. Just saying.
One of the nicer aspects of the film is that, even with the zip-bang special effects of the first quarter, the shots and the overall look becomes ever more beautiful as Walter drifts into the real, abandoning the bold but fake daydreams. I realize that a lot of people will be turned off by the symbolism, and yes a lot of it may be heavy-handed. Walter works at Life instead of living it. He sits on the answer rather than actively digging into it. In the movie, the character handles Life’s photo negatives, making him the Negative Asset Manager, when his character does nothing but manage his negatives. All around him, the world is showing him clues and signs and he’s rejecting them in novel, unsubtle ways…but this is, in the end, a fantasy. There isn’t a single actor in the film I didn’t feel wasn’t perfect for their role including, amazingly, Stiller himself.
The movie is PG, but is surprisingly mature in that the viewer feels that without the allusions, visions, and goings-on, these could be real people (except, maybe, for Scott’s broad antagonist, but he had to be so, and is therefore, perfect for that role). In the end, for all of my personally held caveats emptor, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty delivers an antidote to the sugar rush cinema of late, without abandoning the fantastic. I am, quite shockingly, uplifted by its simple message of being a part of this life versus being apart from it.