film review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

film review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Ben Stiller shows his serious side once again in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, based on the 1939 short story of the same name by John Thurber.

Born of Hollywood comedy royalty, and a funny guy to boot, Ben Stiller could rest on his laurels as a big screen comedian. He’s already done the requisite dramatic roles in Reality Bites, The Royal Tenebaums and (most recently) in Greenburg so there’s nothing stopping him from joining Adam Sandler on the cash-for-old-rope comedy circuit. So what’s stopping him?

I guess he just wants more for his life.

Earlier in the year, in my review of Cloud Atlas, I talked about ambition and the lack thereof in Hollywood these days. As the year’s gone on, I think I might have been a little harsh.

Perhaps I’m imagining it but it looks like we’re finally seeing a backlash to films that can be neatly packaged and pander to the mass audience. Not that I’m suggesting I want all films to charge straight off into the left field like Cloud Atlas, but the talk around films like Gravity, Her, Nebraska and The Place Beyond The Pines shows that there are producers and directors out there who are still willing to take a punt on films that don’t quite fit the mold of what works.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of those films. It’s been languishing in so-called “development hell” (where all the cool films hang out) for nigh on 20 years, going through numerous scripts, directors and lead actors till the latest script, by The Pursuit of Happyness scribe Steve Conrad, landed on the hands of Ben Stiller.

Not quite a drama, not quite a romance, not quite a fantasy and not quite a comedy, it’s easy to see why it took so long to come to the screen. Without falling into a genre, it’s a difficult one for a studio to package. Fortunately Ben Stiller persevered, eventually taking on the role of Mitty as well as directing the film. I guess the studio decided “Ben Stiller” was enough of a package.

Walter Mitty sees Stiller play the titular day dreamer, a negative asset manager in LIFE magazine – that is, he looks after photo negatives – whiling away his days imagining a different life. A life where he’s the one out capturing the images in the pages of the magazine; one where he’s the hero, he’s the guy who sweeps the girl off her feet. In this case the girl is Cheryl Melhoff (played by Kristen Wiig) a sweet divorcĂ©e who works in the accounts department. This is no ordinary romantic dramedy though. This adventure kicks off in one of the most ridiculous ways you might think of, a lost negative, but oh what an adventure it is.

I know I talked about the film being ambitious, but at this juncture it’s important to know that ambitious doesn’t necessarily mean unpredictable. While I love the film, it’s not exactly…. subtle, or surprising. Sure it’s a little mawkish at times and you’d wish maybe somebody who listens to b-sides on occasion picked the music… But what I loved about it was how I felt watching it. I’m not often inspired by film. In fact, I’m not often inspired at all. But this film inspired me. I know that, of course, that was the job of the film but it really did get me thinking about my life and about the value of life in a genuine way.

I’ve already mentioned the genre-straddling, but where I see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty being particularly ambitious is in its themes. I know some people are looking at the film simplistically but I honestly think that’s doing the film a complete disservice. Nobody’s saying you actually have to jump off a helicopter into shark-infested waters to live life to the fullest. Nor are they saying you have to sign up to eHarmony*. What it’s saying is that WE are in control of our lives, not society, not our family and friends, not our employers, but ourselves – and that we choose the person we want to be. I found that very inspiring…

… Maybe not particularly original, but inspiring.

Looking at other reviews of the film though, I’m apparently in the minority. Maybe Walter Mitty is one of those movies that has to fit with the time of your life. Some 12 years into my career as an office worker, and one who, like Mitty, has been made redundant in the past – maybe I’m a little more susceptible to dreaming than the average film critic. The film is currently at 47% for critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but it’s riding high at 78% for audiences, and 7.5 on IMDb… I’m obviously not the only person it’s resonated with.

Ultimately, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is for people who are looking for a bit of inspiration. For people who want more for their lives.

Are you one of those people?

I know I am.



* and by the way I’m sick to death of people who think product placement is in some way a valid criticism of a film. We all live in a branded world. Get over it already. I have barely left my bedroom today and I’ve been reached by probably at least 25 brands. This is the world we live in and the sooner you accept it the sooner you can choose to ignore it.

I just had to get that of my chest.



  1. comment-avatar
    Dan O.December 28, 2013 - 8:16 pm

    There’s a lot for Stiller to handle here, but overall, he does a pretty good job with it all. Good review.

  2. comment-avatar
    Peter OsbornFebruary 15, 2014 - 10:58 pm

    I enjoyed it, thought Stiller did an excellent job directing and starring.

  3. comment-avatar
    Cinema ParadisoFebruary 21, 2014 - 3:51 pm


    Surprisingly good film with Ben Stiller, it was fun and I am glad I saw it in cinema.

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