Ben Stiller’s dreams fall short in ambitious ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has a lot going for it: A gorgeous indie folk-flavored soundtrack, a pair of affecting performances from Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig, an appealing conceit, albeit based off a classic short story, and some of the most astounding cinematography of the year. But there’s something missing in this ambitious passion project from Stiller: a compelling narrative.

Stiller, who also directs the film, plays the titular Walter Mitty, a ridiculously meek and introverted photo manager at LIFE Magazine who can’t muster up the courage to do anything he wants to do in his life. Whether it’s asking Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), his attractive coworker, out on a date or standing up against pricks at work (among them Adam Scott) or even just going out and exploring the world – Walter is a D.O.A. Instead, what he does is retreat inwards into a fantasy world where he’s a hero who saves animals and people from burning buildings, a guy who stands up to his boss, and a romantic mountain explorer who sweeps Cheryl off her feet.

These fantasy segments, which are funny, imaginative, and demonstrate an incredible leap for Stiller as a technical filmmaker, are seamlessly integrated into the narrative – pushing the story forward in fascinating ways. That’s before Stiller completely abandons them 45 minutes into the film in favor of a baffling plot line which finds Mitty travelling from Greenland to Iceland to the Himalayas in search of a reclusive photographer named Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). The primary message of this travelogue, which forms the bulk of the rest of the film, amounts to little more than the annoying catchphrase uttered by Rob Schneider in every Adam Sandler movie: “You Can Do It!”

While there’s much to admire in the earnest message about going out and achieving what you want to do, Stiller’s direction and Steve Conrad’s script don’t succeed in pulling it off. That’s because for all the time and effort Stiller and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh put into the composition of every breathtaking frame of this movie, there isn’t an equal effort made to put the audience inside their eponymous character’s mind. The result is a postcard of a movie – pretty, well-meaning but ultimately soulless. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty may be a failure but it’s a noble and ambitious one that proves that Stiller has the filmmaking chops to play with the big boys. All he needs is a little refining.

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