The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

*. This movie is based on a famous story by James Thurber that was published in 1939. I say famous, but while I think a lot of people have heard of it and know what it’s about it (an everyday man who likes to daydream about being a hero), few have actually read it. It had previously been made into a movie in 1947 starring Danny Kaye, which I think even fewer people today have seen. Which does make you wonder what the draw was for doing it again now.
*. I think the people making it had much the same question in the back of their heads, at it was a project that spent nearly 15 years in development hell, with various stars, writers, and directors attached to it. At the time Ben Stiller was a hot property so in 2013 it was his turn, to both star and direct.
*. The results are dismal. This is another movie where a load of money and talent was thrown up on the screen with almost nothing to show for it. As I’ve pointed out in some of my other notes (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Get Smart), there’s something about going big in comedy that rarely pays off. The budget starts to work against you, and you end up with scenes that look like they cost a lot of money but which aren’t funny at all. What’s funny about Walter swimming with sharks? Or getting in a superhero-style fight with Ted over a Stretch Armstrong doll? Those scenes must have cost a fortune to shoot, but they’re worthless.
*. Not that there’s anything funny going on in the quieter moments either. The plot is stupid, and it’s all set in motion by some mistake that doesn’t make any sense in the first place. Why wouldn’t Walter just say the 25th frame from the roll of film was missing? Why would he be blamed for that?
*. Instead he has to go visiting Greenland and Iceland so we can see some expensive locations and watch a volcano erupt, etc., with lots of useless musical interludes thrown in. What kid would trade his skateboard for a Stretch Armstrong doll? That’s dumb. And the only reason for it is . . . so that we can see Walter riding a skateboard into town. Wasn’t that fun? Not really.
*. I think Ben Stiller is a very funny guy. At least he’s done some really funny stuff in the past. He doesn’t even have the chance to be funny here. And he’s still given way more to work with than poor Kristen Wiig, an actor who needs to spend some more time thinking about the roles she’s accepting. Adam Scott steals the show when he’s allowed to. Patton Oswalt is a character so unreal I wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be an imaginary friend. Shirley MacLaine and Sean Penn show up and have nothing to add, which is too bad because I thought Penn might have been really interesting. But the script is awful. Aside from just jerking us from one splashy set-piece to another nobody has anything to say.
*. There is the usual moral lesson about living life to the fullest. Or something along those lines. Unlike Thurber’s story, the dreams become reality and Walter becomes an actual hero and gets the girl and the cover photo and all the rest of it. Instead of a character study with all sorts of complex angles to explore it settles for being a big-budget rom-com that’s a total waste of time.

12 thoughts on “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

  1. Bookstooge

    I have never found Stiller funny, not even in Mystery Men. Everything else, well, the type of humor he portrayed never even came close to intersecting my own so we stayed apart.

    I have not read the short story myself but given the era it was written in, automatically distrust any ‘modern” take on it. so this movie had 2 strikes against it.

    And now I have my magical 3rd strike. Alex says it was bad. Therefore I am doing the world a favor by not watching this 😀

      1. Bookstooge

        There are types of humor that are nigh universal (Laurel & Hardy, the 3 Stooges) but that won’t appeal to everyone. I don’t feel that Stiller ever reached that stage. His humor was towards one small section of comedy. Of course, being an actor I don’t know how much control he had over what kind of “funny” he was supposed to play at.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I think Stiller has had the freedom to basically do his own thing for a while. And he was riding high at the time of this movie so I imagine it was the movie he wanted to make. Which turned out not to be a good thing. But the Ben Stiller Show was funny. And Zoolander and Tropic Thunder. I think he can be hilarious.

  2. fragglerocking

    Sorry Alex, I can’t abide Ben Stiller at all, saw some of Zoolander and thought it was puerile. I don’t think Stiller’s act travels well to us over the pond, as I don’t know anyone here who likes him, but we have a population of @60 million so I could be mistaken. So this one I can totally live without.

  3. Over-The-Shoulder

    What? I guess I’m the one Brit who likes Ben Stiller. Yes, he’s funny! This film isn’t particularly comedic, but when I last watched it (must be a couple years back) I did like it. Obviously, it’s a great story about a man who longs to escape to freedom – The Secret Life has a good cast, and, of course, while hardly realistic, is an entertaining and an easy watch. There’s not much to lose here!

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Good to see Ben getting some love! I think you’re right that it’s a movie that wasn’t aiming for a lot of laughs. But then all that’s left is pretty bland.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        I thought Penn’s character had such dry potential, almost like he was channeling Bill Murray, but they left it all on the table. He’s only in the one scene and doesn’t get to play off much against Stiller. Oswalt was underwritten too. Frustrating.

  4. Alex's Review Corner

    I have split views on this movie. While I agree the humour is almost always off, I feel like the occasions when the film does take the time to take itself seriously it leads to some moments that have potential – Like Walter finally finding his photographer who tells him sometimes the best thing to do is not take the photo. I mean its a little pretentious and vague but in a better more tonally consistent movie I feel those sorts of scenes may have held more emotional weight. Good write up.

    1. Alex Good

      Yeah that was Penn and I think he might have been great. But most of the other serious or semi-serious moments I thought turned sour. The business with Wiig singing Major Tom had me rolling my eyes. I agree that they just didn’t hit the right note for the thing.


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