The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of those movies that sit on the cusp of greatness without ever reaching it. There are moments in the film that are profoundly touching, but they're undone by other moments that take a needlessly heavy-handed approach. For all its visual beauty, which admittedly deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, Walter Mitty might actually play better at home, on a rainy afternoon when you just want to chill in front on your TV with a movie that's substantive without being too mentally taxing. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, I don't intend it to. That's just how it is.

Ben Stiller (who also directed) stars as the title character, who works in the photo developing department of LIFE magazine. His world is dreary and lonely. All he really wants is to cozy up to a pretty coworker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), but he can't bring himself to make a move. To compensate, he often falls into vivid daydreams in which he is an adventurer of some sort who ends up sweeping Cheryl into his arms. Walter gets a chance to experience some real adventure when an important photograph intended for the cover of the magazine's final issue goes missing. He has to track down the noted photojournalist , Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), who shot it. The trail leads to Greenland and Iceland, and entails facing a number of perils along the way. Meanwhile, Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), the corporate tool tasked with laying people off, is breathing down Walter's neck, demanding the picture.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is, of course, based on the short story by James Thurber, which also inspired the 1947 Danny Kaye film. All three versions are different, with only the concept of a hapless daydreamer connecting them. Thurber's story and Kaye's film nonetheless took a similar track with the idea, in that both were fairly straightforward stories about the protagonist escaping the humdrum realities of everyday life. Stiller's film, adapted by Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness), uses the idea to do something much bigger. This is a movie that wants to make a grand statement about embracing life in all its carpe diem-ness, and about the stagnancy that takes place when you don't.

That's all well and good, except for the fact that the approach is often overwrought. Throughout, you can feel Walter Mitty nudging you, as if to say, “It's time to be inspired now!” The travails Walter faces aren't simple and fun. Each one is a major obstacle that threatens to doom his emotional well-being should he find himself unable to conquer it. To his own surprise, he does conquer them - there'd be no movie if he didn't – yet they feel artificially constructed for maximum inspirational value. The music swells at just the right time and the film's tone becomes self-important, bordering on corny. All movies manipulate your emotions, but with this one, you can really feel it.

Even the fantasies, which are supposed to be more lighthearted, are a bit overbaked. For instance, in one scene, Walter and Ted fight over a Stretch Armstrong doll. The scene begins comically enough, only to spin into an epic, Matrix-style action sequence. Again, it represents the basic problem with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: much of it is done to the level of overkill.

So what does work? Everything else, basically. Stiller is terrific as Walter, making the character's reticence and isolation something you can identify with, rather than playing them just for silly comedy. If the ways in which Walter “finds” himself are usually on the cheesy side, the earnestness with which Stiller brings the guy to life is anything but. It's a sincere, sweet performance. Kristen Wiig, meanwhile, is perfectly adorable as Walter's dream girl. Oddly, her part isn't especially comical, although Wiig does get the chance to show some nice range. Together, she and Stiller convince us that Cheryl is not only special enough to motivate Walter, but also that the two share a special connection.

Other pleasures in the film include some genuine laughs, a couple of nice supporting turns from Adam Scott and Kathryn Hahn (as Walter's sister), and, as previously mentioned, the stunning cinematography. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty even has an emotionally resonant ending that hits the exact note of meaning the rest of it is clearly reaching for. Then again, the ending proves the point. It does not require special effects, action sequences, or elaborate stunts. It works because it's simple, truthful, and meaningful. Walter Mitty has a big heart, and I like it for that. But this is definitely a case where a little simpler would have been a lot better overall.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.

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