We had high expectations for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a remake of the 1947 film starring Danny Kaye. The new version is directed by and stars Ben Stiller, who was present (along with an entourage of producers and 20th Century Fox executives) at the Mill Valley Film Festival closing-night screening. This was only the second time the film had been seen by the public, the first having been at the New York Film Festival.
In the end, we were disappointed. This is a major production, being heavily promoted for a Christmas release. It’s a “pretty good” movie, but left us feeling that it lacked a certain energy.
Walter (Ben Stiller) works quietly in the basement, managing the photo archives for Life magazine. He has a crush on Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), who also works for the ill-fated magazine, slated to be shutdown after one final issue. In the first half of the film, Walter frequently zones out, daydreaming of alternate realities for his life. In the second half, he dives headlong into a series of real adventures, trying to locate an elusive photographer, played in a small role by Sean Penn.
That first half is fairly entertaining. It’s funny and smart and leverages Stiller’s dead-pan characterization style. Surprisingly, once the real action begins, the film actually slows down and becomes far less personal. Stiller is okay in the role, but I’m convinced it’s always a problem when an actor directs himself. Wiig manages to shed her Saturday Night Live characters, but ends up being almost as flat as Stiller. Sean Penn is fine, but the role is so small as to do little for the film. Kathryn Hahn has some real energy as Stiller’s sister, but Shirley MacLaine is a dud as their mother. Adam Scott plays a cartoonish manager, tasked with shutting down the magazine. If there’s one standout role, it’s the drunken pilot played brilliantly by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson. As much as I loved his scene, it also highlighted the general weaknesses of the rest of the second half of the movie. It could probably be improved by judiciously shortening some of the grand landscape scenes — how long do we really need to watch Stiller trek through the Himalayas? — and perhaps that will be done in the next two months before release.
Although competition will be fierce, I expect Stiller’s appeal and the studio’s hype to make The Secret Life of Walter Mitty a holiday success. But it’s not a film I suggest should be at the top of your end-of-year list.