Ben Stiller certainly aimed high with his ambitious remake/adaptation of the previous film/short story of the same name. Stiller’s take on the material is filled with his own unique brand of awkwardness and imagination, but for all the grandiose ideas and beautiful cinematography in Iceland and Greenland, the film doesn’t quite achieve the level of cinematic zen it is vying so desperately for.
Stiller plays the titular character, Walter, whose dreary and monotonous existence is spent developing negatives for Life magazine. What makes Walter different from any other soulless office worker is his wild daydreams that cause him to channel his inner heroism and gallantry. That is until he discovers that his workplace is being rapidly downsized in order to move its content online. Charged with finding a lost photo negative from renowned enigmatic photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), Walter is forced to snap out of his prosaic routine and embark on his own real life adventure. As Walter’s journey takes him to some of the most world’s most picturesque locales, his penchant for fantasy subsides into a new appreciation for what the world really has to offer.
Stiller shows promise at times throughout the piece, with moments that are quite profound and very touching, but there are also a number of sequences where a more subtle approach was clearly needed. Some of the fantasy sequences are almost too absurd and overcooked, and they do tend to detract from the more grounded and emotionally uplifting aspects of the story. The film’s ‘message’ is also drummed so loudly into the audience’s heads that the development and transformation of Walter doesn’t quite feel as natural or earned as it should. To be harsh, it felt a tad too superficial.
Regardless of his work behind the camera (which is still confident and competent), Stiller is a great fit for the socially awkward Walter and it’s definitely one of his better performances in recent history. Kristen Wiig does well with the lack of material she is handed, although the chemistry just wasn’t there between the two either.
While not as funny as you’d expect from a Stiller-led vehicle, the film does urge you to get swept away by the silly and nonsensical fun that’s on offer. Aided by some of the very best life-affirming ballads by Of Monsters and Men and Arcade Fire, the film does succeed at times in instilling a sense of awe and inspiration into the audience.
Heartfelt and ambitious to a fault, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is filled with grand ideas and stunning imagery. It just isn’t all that necessary or coherent as a result.