The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

What do you think of when you hear the name Ben Stiller? Most people -- including myself -- think of comedies, Zoolander to Tropic Thunder, Dodgeball to There's Something About Mary and plenty others in between. I've always been a fan, but Stiller is better to me when he underplays parts. Yeah, his over the top roles, like Dodgeball, are funny, but he's at his best with underplayed genre. Take 2013's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a great part for Stiller and a great part in general.

A negatives analyst working at Life Magazine, Walter Mitty (Stiller) is the best at what he does, working with all the pictures Life uses over his 16 years with the magazine. With the changing times in the media, magazines and technology, Life is in for a change too, the iconic magazine going to an online-only format. A longtime photographer who's held in international regard, Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) has sent Life and Walter a roll of film with one picture, Frame 25, that's perfect for the cover of the last print edition. There's a problem though. That one frame is missing, and Walter's bosses want and need that picture. Where could it be? The mysterious Sean isn't exactly easy to track down. A middle-aged man who doesn't feel like he's accomplished a whole lot with his wife -- daydreaming and zoning out all the time -- Walter decides this is his chance. This is his opportunity to get out in the world and find that possibly historic single picture. Can he find it in time?

Sometimes critics really throw me off. 'Mitty' has across the board mixed reviews, Rotten Tomatoes totaling 49%, Metacritic a 55% . Heading into movies, I really try not to read reviews, wanting to go into each new movie with a clean slate. Well, let's say this. I really don't want to read those reviews now, having seen the recent release. Why? Because they're wrong. That's all. I didn't like this movie, even really like it. I loved it. I loved the story and the message and everything really. Thankfully, it seems audiences are ignoring the critics (oh, wait, I'm a critic...ah, my head hurts!) and going out and seeing the movie. As I write this review, it has earned over $100 million in theaters and possesses a 7.7 rating at IMDB. I have some general issues, a couple criticisms, but what's important is a moving, straightforward, encouraging and emotional message that hopefully will resonate with you as much as it did me.

What hit me a couple hours after watching 'Mitty' was that the message is reminiscent of a Frank Capra movie. This is a movie that wants to believe in the genuine goodness of mankind/humanity, and that the world is a great place. Most of the time, I think it is. There's just so much negative at times that it is hard to go along with. But Stiller's film -- he starred and directed, working off a screenplay by Steve Conrad -- wants to believe in the positive. It is a story about dreams, striving for your dreams, having faith in yourself and others, appreciating the big moments and the little moments, appreciating your family and all the people you meet in your day-to-day life, the impact you can have on all those people and vice versa. If it seems a little dated, a bit of a throwback film, so be it. I fell for it hook, line and sinker.

So four paragraphs into the review, I haven't delved into an important aspect of this movie. Walter daydreams....a lot. The style in which that is shown is seamless. We see Walter in a normal, everyday interaction and then he isn't as he rescues a dog from a burning building, imagines a what-if encounter in the future, sees someone that isn't there, an epic fight scene that tears apart New York City, popping out of a magazine cover. Then, as quick as we saw them, they're gone, Walter's daydreaming broken up momentarily. As a director, Stiller shows off his skill in these scenes, blending the real and the imagined without missing a beat. In general, the style is everywhere from the credits that play like scenery, the scene-to-scene transitions, the soundtrack (Indie rock songs and a solid score from composer Theodore Shapiro), the beautiful visuals, it all rolls into one very enjoyable, pretty perfect package.

Directing and starring in the same movie can be tricky, but Stiller nails it. As a director, I think he does a fine job at the helm of an ambitious film that strives to do a whole lot. I was even more impressed with his acting job here. This isn't over the top Ben Stiller, but human, very dramatic Ben Stiller who perfectly underplays his part as Walter Mitty. We learn why Walter is the way he is, kinda quiet, a hard worker, shy but a nice guy in general, someone who has more impact on others than he could possibly imagine. His backstory is interesting and explanatory, adding another layer to Walter's personality. I love what he becomes. He decides he wants to accomplish something, something big and crazy because he's done nothing of the sort his whole life because he couldn't. What he doesn't realize is that just because your life hasn't been big and crazy doesn't mean you haven't accomplished something. Everything about the character though, I loved Walter.

This is Walter's movie, but like Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, it's also about the people with Walter. Kristen Wiig similarly pulls a Stiller, showing off a dramatic side on top of her comedy chops as Cheryl, a co-worker at Life who he has a crush on, Marcus Antturi playing her son. Penn is a scene-stealer as Sean, a photographer who has no qualms about going anywhere to get the picture he needs, as is Shirley MacLaine as Walter's Mom who's getting older and struggling with some medical issues, Kathryn Hahn as Walter's kinda goofy but well-meaning sister. Adrian Martinez is Walter's co-worker in the negatives room and a close friend, Hernando, while Adam Scott is Mr., uh, Ted Hendricks, the new boss in charge of the Life transition, in general an a-hole who revels in being that boss everyone hates. Also worth mentioning is Patton Oswalt in a great comedic part as Todd, a customer service representative at E-Harmony working with Walter over the phone.      

Trying to limit this movie to one specific genre is tough. It's a fantasy, a comedy, a drama, all of the above and more. Globetrotting from NYC to Iceland to Greenland to Afghanistan and the Himalayas, it is a movie full of beautiful moments that kept on impressing me with each passing minute. I loved it all, especially the ending that had me worried we were about to see some stupid, out of left field twist. No worries there. It is a great ending for a great movie. Shooting myself in the foot here a bit, but it's a prime example of not taking a critics' rating as a hard and fast rule. I can't recommend this one enough.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013): ****/****


  1. May not be the most perfect thing out there in the world right now, but still impressive considering this is Stiller behind-the-camera. Nice review Tim.

  2. Very impressed with Stiller in front of and behind the camera.