********* 7 out of 10 *********
When we were invited by Fox Studios for the preview screening of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, we got pretty excited about it. Well, we get to see it before the US release (which is on Christmas) after all! Also, this movie was on our radar for quite sometime. The origins of the story for the film go decades back, when author and cartoonist James Thurber published a short story of the same name in 1939, which is regarded as one of his greatest works. In 1947, the story was loosely adapted into a film in Hollywood. In the mid-90s, the idea of a remake took roots, which has finally found its way to the theatres by end of 2013. A long and tiresome journey for Walter Mitty finally bore fruit, and what was supposed to be a Jim Carrey film directed by Steven Spielberg at some stage in its development, eventually over the years turned into a Ben Stiller film directed by Ben Stiller. But despite the numerous permutations and combinations over the cast and crew members, and the many rewrites that must have gone along with it, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty managed to keep its heart intact, of narrating a story of an ordinary man who gets to live an extraordinary adventure.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a nondescript employee at a magazine publishing company, who has done nothing beyond the mundane for many a years. He harbours a crush on his colleague Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) but is too jittery to bring it up, and goes about his routine in a normal fashion, deriving his happiness by day-dreaming of an adventurous life. Mitty’s company is however revamping its operations and bring in the not-so-polite Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) to oversee the change. And in all this, Mitty finds a negative sent by photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) missing. An important negative. The only way Mitty can salvage the situation is by taking a step beyond his routine life and seeking the adventures he had only dreamt of so far. But would he be able to? From here begins a journey of courage and faith, and of resolve, and eventually, happiness.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has an emotionally connecting and a soul searching story at its crux. No doubt helped by the fact that the source material comes from James Thurber’s famous short story, the screenplay too has been well-shaped by Steve Conrad, whose most renowned work as a writer would of course be The Pursuit of Happyness. The movie takes its time to build up, and the first 20 or so minutes might seem a drag to quite a few, but those opening minutes which depict the mundane life of Walter Mitty are the ones that make the rest of the film stand out. There is a lovely variance with the colour palettes to make the real life and the imaginary one of Walter Mitty differ, and once the adventures begin, the second half is filled with some gorgeous landscapes and brighter colours to make you quickly forget that boring office place which the movie began with. It seems that is what Ben Stiller wanted, to make you step out into this adventure with Walter Mitty and be in his shoes, and he has achieved this quite brilliantly.
It is a tricky proposition to direct a movie with yourself as the lead actor. Ben Stiller did it with his last venture Tropic Thunder, but he had the might of Robert Downey, Jr., Jack Black and Tom Cruise to help along the way. The fate of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty however lies squarely on his shoulders. And here if we had to choose, we would admit that Ben Stiller the director triumphs Ben Stiller the actor. Stiller is part of a drama-adventure film here which sees him play a more serious role than his regular comic acts. He does put in a fine performance as Walter Mitty, the regular guy with a regular life, who finally plucks the courage to embark on an adventure. But there seem to be attempts at goofy comedy popped in for the benefit of Stiller’s fans, so that an “all-serious” tone does not drive them away. This somewhere dilutes Stiller’s performance, or maybe it is his history of being a wonderful comic actor that makes it difficult to accept him easily in a different role. Nonetheless, an actor who is a regular in drama films may have brought more life to the character; for instance, Sean Penn, who has a small role in this film, would have nailed the personality of Walter Mitty. This is no discredit to Ben Stiller’s efforts to dabble in something different, but there was room for a more emotive performance. Yet the movie still shines and warms the heart, because of Ben Stiller the director, who has handled the film with such delicacy, the way a gardener would tend to his rose bushes. Each frame seems well thought of, each detail has been clearly planned, right from the costumes to the locations, they all work to make the movie cohesive. There are moments in this movie that would stay with you; something as simplistic as the way Mitty stares at the waters as he pedals on the roads of Iceland, and you can feel the happiness in your heart as it would be for Mitty. Ben Stiller is indeed growing in repute behind the cameras!
Ben Stiller is not the only comedian being a bit more serious in this film, for so is Kristen Wiig. Charming and restrained, Wiig puts in an impressive performance as Mitty’s love interest. The beauty of her role lies in the simplicity of her character, the working single mother who could do with an adventure in her life as well. Sean Penn has limited screen time but his character is quite centric to the movie’s plot. And the best part about such great actors is, they make even a few minutes on screen count. So does Penn! Same holds true for Shirley MacLaine who plays Mitty’s mother, and does enough without needing to do much. The same though cannot be said for Adam Scott, who is playing the devilish boss, but seems quite a misfit in the movie. He’s not really threatening, nor funny, and it seems more to do with a poor casting decision for the role rather than a reflection on Scott’s talent.
Overall, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the kind of feel-good movie which can cheer you up on the holidays and bring a smile as the year approaches an end. For some it can do even a bit more, it could be the catalyst to push you to break free of the humdrum that you have put yourself in, it could be the drive you needed to seek out an adventure, it could very well be the beginning of your own journey… May you find a fulfilling “secret life” to live too!