THE MEANING OF LIFE.
The first 20 minutes of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a rough adaptation of James Thurber’s short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The remainder of Ben Stiller’s film has got absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the work from which it takes its title. Nothing WHATSOEVER! The trademark ‘fantasies’ that Mitty enters consistently in the story and that this film is being marketed as focusing on total to a number of 3-4 very short sequences, only one of which is the slightest bit unique or memorable (involving Stiller’s Mitty and an unpleasant co-worker in a Spider-Man-esque aerial fight). Hence, calling this TSLOWM is lying. What it’s really about is LIFE Magazine, where Mitty works and which holds the motto that carries the film’s themes- adventure, discovery and truth.
The film begins with Mitty sitting at his computer, attempting to connect to his workplace crush Cheryl via eHarmony- the online dating website. This silent scene, accompanied only by the beep of the ‘Error’ alert on Mitty’s screen, is arguably the most original, witty and quirky part of the entire film. It, unfortunately, sets up an expectation for a certain quality and tone, which is never met. A question that runs through one’s mind watching The Secret Life, and that if it had run through Stiller’s mind the film would have been much improved is: WWWAD? No, that isn’t a teenager’s way of asking ‘What?’, but is an acronym for the should-be-more-common saying “What Would Wes Anderson Do?” With his ‘indie’ comedy-dramas, Anderson always finds the perfect mix of indescribable hilarity and deep philosophy, which The Secret Life so desperately needs. It gives both areas a shot, but fails in both almost half the time!
In that opening scene, Mitty calls an eHarmony worker for assistance, whose voice can be instantly recognised as that of Patton Oswalt. Oswalt’s reassuring presence, along with those of Shirley MacLaine as Mitty’s mother and Sean Penn as the film’s most original character, renowned photographer Sean O’Connell, give the inferior portions of the film the illusion of being good, while the action taking place around the stars is badly directed by Stiller. Stiller clearly didn’t ask himself “WWWAD?” when he was making The Secret Life. The film’s most cinematically impressive section, when Mitty searches for O’Connell and his missing negative (intended to be used on the final LIFE cover) in the Himalayas, is almost completely ruined thanks to Mitty’s annoyingly boring ‘travel notes’ being plastered across the screen. The soundtrack is a mix of original upbeat folk-pop and a selection of the most clichéd soundtrack choices of all time- Arcade Fire’s great but completely overused ‘Wake Up’ and David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ (incorrectly called ‘Major Tom’ by the characters throughout). This adds to one’s feeling that The Secret Life is a film which seemed GREAT in Stiller’s imagination, but like the character he plays, he was unable to recreate the magic in reality due to limited resources (resources of what it’s hard to say)!
Aside from all the big problems with this film, there are some really good things. The middle section, which sees Mitty travel from New York to Greenland (on a flight with one other person) and Greenland to Iceland (on a fishing trawler of brilliantly eccentric characters) is incredibly enjoyable and well made. About the only scene which contends the opening for the film’s best is one which sees Mitty meeting a drunk helicopter pilot in a Greenlandic karaoke bar. The pilot quips that “it’s hard to find love in a country of 8 people”. This is followed by an impressive skateboarding scene (which takes ages to be set up, and is only somewhat worth it) and a great joke (once again involving much set up) in which a Papa Johns is discovered in the middle of nowhere.
Kristen Wiig and Adam Scott as Mitty’s crush Cheryl and his co-worker Ted are both excellent, the former giving her best big-screen performance to date and the latter doing his best evildoer impression. An intense volcanic eruption sequence, highlighted by the sight from afar of Penn’s O’Connell wing-walking as he photographs the volcano, is another great moment.
Like the very different but current Saving Mr Banks, The Secret Life has some great stuff, but also some bad stuff. Unlike Mr Banks, however, the bad stuff is often in abundance and prevails in the end.