While most of us have come to accept product placement as a necessary evil in motion picture financing, the way in which Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” prominently hawks eHarmony, Papa John’s Pizza, and Cinnabon just goes to underscore its organically phony qualities. The film, which builds a narrative around the daydreaming scenario in the 1939 James Thurber short-story from which it gets its title, is Hallmark-greeting-card-style cinema, existing mainly to dramatize worn affirmations like “Live every day like it’s your last!” and “Get out and explore the world!”
The eponymous protagonist (Stiller) lives a boring, solitary existence as a film developer for Life Magazine—amazingly still around in this cinematic universe, but on the brink of a migration to digital— that forces him to enact extraordinary fantasies inside his head. The vivid way in which these are rendered made me think Walter might have an actual mental disorder, but never mind that — they stop as soon as the plot kicks in. When an important negative from an elusive, seemingly untraceable photographer (Sean Penn) goes missing, Walter embarks upon a globetrotting mission to track him down, which makes Walter realize the aforementioned affirmations. The woman of his dreams (Kristen Wiig) just so happens to be watching on, so she can hook up with him when he gets back.
It may sound like I’ve only just begun to lay into the movie, but I actually didn’t abhor it. Yes, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a thick load of Hollywood bullshit—a film seemingly manufactured to bring tears to the eyes of the vulnerable masses over the Christmas Holiday—but it has its fair share of positive assets. Chiefly, the performances. Stiller is fine as the introvert-becoming-an-extrovert lead, but the supporting cast really shines. eHarmony should immediately hire Patton Oswalt as their brand spokesman, because even though his scenes as Walter’s assigned telephone support agent reek of new-agey commercialism (self-satirizing the matchmaking company while simultaneously extolling its virtues), Oswalt exudes great warmth and likability in this role. Wiig makes for the ideal love-interest, charming and down-to-earth, while Adam Scott is equally effective in the opposite role as the thickly bearded asshole who’s brought in to fire Walter when the magazine becomes web-based. And Sean Penn is, well, Sean Penn — I want to know what favor Stiller had call in to get the master actor to participate.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is also a beautiful-looking movie, with the breathtaking vistas of Greenland and Iceland dominating Walter’s journey abroad. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh lovingly shoots the action on 35mm; thankfully, he had the good sense not to attempt to digitally capture a movie that involves a film developer protagonist being laid off.
Thus, what we have here is a fundamentally flawed and even dumb film that’s made tolerable by a few choice achievements. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but those who end up seeing “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” should take comfort in the fact that Steve Conrad’s script didn’t fall into lesser hands and become the true abomination it was capable of becoming. Or, as a tired old saying fit for the thematics of the movie would tell us: Be thankful for small favors.