The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by Ben Stiller, is a lighthearted, feel-good comedy about a man who had to grow up at an early age and set aside his dreams for a more structured life. When that life is threatened by being laid-off, he scours the world for a Red Herring that is both exceptional and mundane, perhaps like Life magazine and life itself.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a daydreamer who’s having trouble sending a “wink” to his real-life crush Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) on eHarmony. They both work at Life magazine where Walter is a photo editor. Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) heads a team that has recently acquired the magazine and has chosen to revamp the publication to an online-only presence, setting its final print issue for later that week, and effectively canning Walter, his crush, and his friends. World-traveling photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) has sent in his last roll, and has chosen Frame 25 as the last photo cover, or as Sean calls it the “Quintessence of Life.” However, the “Quintessence of Life” is missing from the roll, provoking Walter to search the world for Sean and Frame 25.
Walter’s vivid daydreams seem to spark when a particular phrase is spoken, allowing Walter to experience the extraordinary within his own mind. Although his job as a photo editor at Life magazine is a respectable occupation, Walter is used to much more ambitious activities. Walter’s adventurous notions were not always restricted to his mind. When his father died when Walter was 17, it left his family with little savings, prompting Walter to shave his Mohawk and trade his skateboard in for a uniform at Papa John’s. Somewhere between Papa John’s and Life magazine, Walter gained an unsatisfied sense of wonder, hence his day dreams.
The search for the “Quintessence of Life” is one of the most appealing metaphoric Red Herrings, as it exemplifies the human desire to constantly explore and master our own mind and body. Despite this existential yearning in the film, the search for Frame 25 is fraught with too many easily convenient plot twists and lazily placed moments and artifacts. But one can step away from these minute flaws and recognize that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty offers a common inspirational narrative about stepping outside one’s sterile life and into a vast world.
Director and star Ben Stiller typically directs and stars in films that are far darker and much more satirical. Yet his penchant to perform as a neurotic and up tight hero or antagonist is again seen here when Walter is balancing his check book at the beginning of the film—in 2013 no less—and timid in approaching his crush. Stiller’s directorial choices are rather similar in portraying neuroses as the world prior to searching for Frame 25 is clean and systematic.
The film is a new adaptation of the 1942 short story of the same name by James Thurber, and was originally adapted as a film in 1947. Walter Mitty in film might be a family affair as the original was produced by the iconic Samuel Goldwyn, and this 2013 version is produced by Samuel Goldwyn Jr. and John Goldwyn.
Outside the perfect Red Herring described above, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is far too safe; strange to say about a film depicting a man shying away from his reticent lifestyle to blossoming into something grander. The visual, narrative, and auditory clichés are too much to make this film anything substantial, albeit its inherent feel-good atmosphere is sincere.