Film Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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Quintessence of Dust

Making a daring joke about the death of film critic Gene Siskel, Jeff Ross said the late scribe was due to review Ben Stiller’s 1999 movie, Mystery Men, but took the easy way out. Stiller’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn’t worth killing yourself over but neither is it the life affirming tale it pretends to be. It attempts to sell the lie that dull people, the kind you wouldn’t want to spend any time with because they have nothing to say for themselves, can be improved through horizon expansion; trips to far off lands; but this is the travellers’ fallacy and we’d thank the movies not to validate it.

Dullards can meet interesting people and see the world’s wonders but if they’re anything like Stiller’s Walter, they remain a blank. When film historians try to work out why this movie is so inconsequential their first port of call will be that character; the dreamer that no one thought to invest with personality.

In a movie too lethargically paced to support humour, as timing matters in such things, the only joke that works is the idea that this is a film that champions the everyman against the values of aggressive capitalism and corporate interests. The one thing Stiller gets right is adopting a style that recalls the quirky and visually inventive commercials that patient moviegoers sit through as they await the feature. That’s because Walter Mitty‘s a conflation of film and advertisement.

It looks as if Stiller had a conversation with Adam Sandler and Mike Myers about how you can inflate your budget using commercial sponsors, thus guaranteeing a huge payday for yourself. While the threadbare story driven by a quest for a photo negative, because it’s about ways of seeing you see, ticks over, the film’s attention stays firmly on name-checking the brands that have paid up front for the privilege. These include, in no particular order, Life, Apple, Google, Facebook (and their acquisition Instagram in the same dialogue scene), Sony, McDonalds, Air Greenland, American Airlines, KFC and Papa John’s.

The last of these drives an extraordinary scene in which Kristen Wiig ignores Stiller’s chat and refers him back to the chain no less than 3 times. The same scene tries to piggy back the brand onto an important part of Mitty’s backstory; a tactic so obnoxious and bare faced, one wonders if a sequel would reveal that Walter’s great grandfather was Colonel Sanders.

Another commercial sponsor, masquerading as story material, is Patton Oswalt’s eHarmony employee who phones Stiller throughout the movie for no reason other than to remind the audience that they too can find love online if they’re prepared to beef up their profile with a little international travel. Lonely hearts may choke on the irony, however, that were they to choose Mitty as a date movie, they’d probably be back to square one before the end credits. That special someone won’t expect to be bored to death, not when their other potential suitor had dinner and sex in mind.

Ultimately one could accept the movie’s string of insults, waving them away with consideration of movie business imperatives, were the story spellbinding and heartwarming but it is neither. The film’s built on a journey we don’t care about, looking for an item that’s not really important, and a burgeoning relationship that’s stillborn thanks to the absence of chemistry between Wiig and Stiller. There’s no material difference between Mitty’s fantasy life and his real world adventure: both are weightless. “It’s like Indiana Jones attempted to become the lead singer of The Strokes” says Oswalt of Stiller’s no mark. In fact it’s closer to being like a nice but boring friend who returns from holiday with a thousand photos. You don’t want to see them all but you’re forced to. Every. Single. Shot.

Directed by: Ben Stiller

Country: US

Year: 2013

Running Time: 114 mins

Certificate: PG for Ben Stiller, crude product placement and a slumming Sean Penn.

10 Responses

  1. Doug Robinson says:

    Sorry, but that’s a bad review. I thought the film was not perfect, but that it was great which is great more important. You don’t like Stiller, and I get that–I hated Mystery Men too. But egads, to criticize him for the appearance of Air Greenland airplanes? That proves that you’re searching a bit too hard for things to dislike about the flick, imo. As if those greedy corporate bastards at Air Greenland have been shoving their branding down our throats in every film since…well, since…oops.

    I had no idea whether or not Air Greenland was a legit airline when I saw the film (and honestly unless you’ve flown to Greenland, I wonder if you knew yourself), but it does take you to that country. I figured it was the lazy way out, to invent a simple airline in order to not pay product placement, but I guess I was wrong.

    I got chemistry between Stiller and Wiig; I thought the helicopter pilot scenes were excellent, tense comedy; I thought the film looked terrific…and I was stunned to see that stiller himself had directed it. This isn’t the work of some hack, folks. Hacks don’t make such ambitious films–they can’t, in fact.

    Now, having said all of that, I will say one more thing that will probably be the kiss of death for some readers: at times it reminded me a bit of Forest Gump. It’s got ‘feel good’ written all over it, albeit there are some downbeat moments. It combines reality and fantasy–more than one layer of each, in fact–in a skillful and pleasing way. No, it didn’t challenge my concept of reality the way, for example, Inception did…but that wasn’t the goal.

    It’s just a really good time at the movies, period. AndI want to give a special nod to Theodore Shapiro who wrote the music–for a while I believed I was listening to a Thomas Newman score, but it kept going unexpected places. Very well done.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      Sorry, but it’s not a bad review just because you enjoyed the movie. That confuses your tastes with a considered appraisal of the flick. It’s an easy mistake to make, but try to avoid it in future.

      Although I usually love selective readings of my reviews, because being disingenuous really sells an argument, I’m pained to point out that honing in on Air Greenland because it’s not a well known brand, so you can argue I’m nitpicking, wilfully ignores the many very well known brands that not only feature in the movie, but are obnoxiously tethered to the dialogue and, as I pointed out, the backstory of Walter himself. You’re not going to tell me that Papa John’s is obscure are you? Or Facebook? Or Google? Or American Airlines? Or eHarmony? What’s that? You are? Well I’m delighted you live in a world with so little brand awareness. I only wish I did. Maybe you think all that advertising is consistent with the film’s theme of socking it to the corporate man, but I don’t.

      I don’t like Stiller in this, no, but his non performance is the least of the film’s worries. You can infer I believe that from the words I’ve used in my piece.

      Still, glad you enjoyed it (though not really).

      • Ryan S says:

        I don’t understand. What is the problem with product placement? Look at the world we live in! It’s filled with Apple, Facebook, Instagram, Google, American Airlines, and eHarmony. I don’t go on a nondescript dating site, using my nondescript computer that looks suspiciously like a Mac Pro, after I just went to a nondescript gas station to get my nondescript candy. Our world is laden with brand names and whatnot, so I think it’s important to accept it in film.

        • Ed Whitfield says:

          The distinction in this case is between relatively benign product placement, which has always been a feature of movies – Arnie walking past a Pepsi vending machine in T2 for example, and a film which is deigned specifically to accommodate brands that have paid to have their identities front and centre: advertising integrated into the fabric of the film. So a character drinking a coke is one thing but Mike Myers’ Doctor Evil being based in the Starbucks building, offering his henchman “a hot pocket” because “they’re breathtaking” is another.

          I don’t go to the movies to sit though a 2 hour commercial break, especially when that self same flick is pretending to preach a message of individual self expression and eschewing group think, as in Walter Mitty’s case. It’s incredibly cynical, not to mention patronising to an audience presumed too dumb to notice, to incorporate advertising into the body of a film in this way.

          If you can’t see the difference between a character eating a certain brand of breakfast cereal in the middle of a family scene and Tom Hanks being a Fed Ex employee in Cast Away, thereby tethering the character to the brand’s values (he delivered that parcel in the end, despite his 4 years on the island!) then congratulations, you’re exactly the type of ticket buyer that Myers, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller hoped to see. Someone who had commercials forced down their throat for 2 hours and barely noticed – not when they contrived to remind you of McDonalds slogan, not when Walter related his touching Papa John’s story, not even when eHarmony rang Walter 63 times to offer him companionship on his lonely trek around the world (and of course indirect help in getting the girl), and certainly not when Life’s brand values, inextricably linked to Walter’s philosophy of course, were repeated ad nauseum. Geddit? AD nauseum? Ah, nevermind.

          Anyway, glad you enjoyed it (though not really).

          • Sam Midwood says:

            Thank you for being a force for good (filmmaking) in this world. The hypocrisy of this flick was mind-blowing. It’s interesting, I don’t mind when Myers’ does product placement. He’s always so tongue-in-cheek and open about it. I mean, he’s basically saying, “We all know that I have to do this, I’m equally as disgusted as you all are, so let me at least try to make this funny.” Now, story infused product placement in itself is a whole other conversation. Don’t get me started. I really believe that Hanks and Co. are the worst perpetrators — You’ve Got Mail, Cast Away, Saving Mr. Banks. I still, to this day, do not understand how a movie about a major corporation (basically Barnes & Nobles) crushing the little guy (mom & pop books shops) became one of the most beloved romantic comedies of all time. What’s that say about us? Sorry, tangent. Any way, thank you for this review. It was life-affirming, unlike Walter Mitty.

          • Ed Whitfield says:

            Hi Sam. Thanks for the kind remarks. I have to disagree on one point you make though. I don’t think Mike Myers being tongue in cheek about gratuitous product placement gets him off the hook. It’s designed to but it doesn’t. He didn’t have to include this shit in the Austin Powers sequel at all, but it was in his interests to do so because an inflated budget means a huge pay day. In modern times we call this The Sandler Gambit. AP2 could probably have been made for a third of its actual cost but then Myers would have had to settle for a pauperising million or some such. He realised, during Wayne’s World, that you could have your cake and eat it if you convinced the audience it was a joke. Another way of putting that is hiding the fact you’re giving them the finger in plain sight. Depressing really.

  2. Morgan says:

    You forgot to mention KFC and Cinnabon. The Cinnabon and Papa Johns scenes were agonizing.

  3. Jayce Hill says:

    I saw the movie and liked it quite a bit. I thought it was visually impressive and the story didn’t come off as too cheesy or on the nose at all. In that respect I think it was a movie that was worth the money/trip to the theater.

    It looks like your biggest problem with the film was the product placement. A problem, that I too, find to be a big distraction when you are trying to enjoy a good film. I wouldn’t shift the blame entirely on Stiller, there are a ton of external sources that push that type of commercialism into these films. A lot of times a big portion of a films’ budget operate off of these deals.

    I would say that this critique would better serve the film industry as a whole rather than a laser focus on this movie. Product placement happens, it is just how the industry works, I wouldn’t knock a film for it. I am happy that you brought it up because I did think it was a small distraction as well.

    That aside, the characters were well developed, the story was interesting, the cinematography was superb, and the special effects were well done. I enjoyed the movie, but like you said, its a shame that the industry forces these sponsers down our throats and takes our attentions away from a great movie.

  4. Johnny Giles says:

    I saw the movie with my kids and enjoyed it very much. You offer fair criticism concerning product placement which until I read your review really did not notice. Near the end of the movie when Mitty rails about how the corporation was built on principles that valued peoples’ efforts in achieving the best for themselves to make something greater than the sum of themselves does not square with product placement.

    I get that…but visually the movie is terrific and to see Stiller not do those crazy scenes like in his other comedies (Tropic Thunder) was very refreshing. It did move along slowly but the scenes with Wiig’s son with the skateboard and sign language scene in the Himalayas are excellent. The very ending of the movie was very poetic and I will see again while it is still in the theaters.

  5. tim earnshaw says:

    I think Ben Stiller is widely underrated. I am full of gratitude for him being in the movie business. No other actor has quite the power to warn me off a movie. I wish he got more work. I wish he’d been in most of the movies I fidgeted through last year so I could have simply not bothered downl- paying for multiplex tix.