‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ Review: 10 Things To Know About the Fantasy Film

by Erin Whitney

Ben Stiller, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty review

20th Century Fox

Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” an adaptation of James Thurber’s 1939 short story of the same name, premiered at the New York Film Festival this past weekend to widely polarized critical reactions. While many proclaimed the film an utter mess, others praised its fun and fantastical nature.

Directed by and starring Stiller, “Walter Mitty” loosely follows the fantasy and real-life adventures of the fictional title character (first portrayed on screen by Danny Kaye in 1947). Stiller’s awkward and timid Mitty works in the photography department at Life magazine and is the liason for famed photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). But when a negative of O’Connell’s photo goes missing — one that will be used as the cover photo of the very last Life print issue before the mag transitions to online — Mitty must go on a real adventure, one crazier than his imagination has ever concocted.

The comedy-fantasy flick from Stiller doesn’t hit theaters until Christmas Day, so to get a head start, here are 10 things you should probably know about it.

1. It’s Not the Film the Trailer Depicts
According to the trailer, Stiller’s remake appears to be more of an artful take on the famous short story than a silly romcom. Unfortunately, those expecting “Walter Mitty” to have a profound and uplifting message or original characters will be disappointed to find it a hodgepodge of Hollywood cliches. Stiller’s film takes the typical early-2000s romcom — as always, set in the journalism industry — and uses Thurber’s short story as inspiration for fantastical, outrageous, and some outright weird daydream sequences. The promo wants us to believe Stiller’s Mitty is a mix of Zach Braff‘s Andrew Largeman in “Garden State” with the wildly imaginative mind of Gael Garcia Bernal in “The Science of Sleep.” But don’t be mislead: “Walter Mitty” is nothing but mainstream fare (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

2. It’s Super Cute and Fun
Some of us have a soft spot for sweet and cheesy films, especially ones with visual flair like this movie. Stiller is convincing as an awkward nerd with big dreams of adventure. His daydreams are the most exciting element of the movie, from his superhero dog-in-a-burning-building rescue to his fantasy of talking back to Adam Scott‘s frat boy bully. His zone-out moments and real-life adventures are equally ridiculous, and his sentimental moments are pure cheese. If you swallow “Walter Mitty” for what it is, it is an enjoyable saccharine treat.

3. It’s Uneven In Tone
That said, the main downfall of “Walter Mitty” is its indecisiveness between comedy and drama. The film has a handful of laughable moments, but screenwriter Steve Conrad (“The Pursuit of Happiness”) throws in sudden serious elements that feel widely out of place. In one scene, Walter quickly transitions from lightheartedly joking about being in a Papa John’s in Greenland to relating the story of his father’s death. While the wavering tone of serious and playful throughout the film reflects the awkward nature of Stiller’s character, it unfortunately ruins several moments that could’ve been more believable.

4. Kristen Wiig Is Miscast
There’s something about Kristen Wiig, or maybe everything, that just makes you want to burst out laughing; it’s why we love her. For that very reason Wiig will simply never work in even a semi-serious role or as a character with any level of normalcy. Wiig’s Cheryl, a separated mother with an inactive eHarmony account, is your everyday woman with slight nerd tendencies like Stiller’s Walter. However, it’s impossible for Wiig to deliver a line with any amount of seriousness that doesn’t leave the audience teetering on whether to laugh or not. We’ve been conditioned to never take Wiig seriously. Like many other breakout female SNL cast members, Wiig has pigeonholed herself into such arbitrary comedic characters that normal ones may never fit.

5. Adam Scott Is Kind of Disappointing
The “Parks and Rec” actor is enjoyable to watch on the big and small screen for playing both a shy sweetheart and, at other times, an arrogant jerk. As Walter’s new boss, Scott is the perfect cocky bully you want to punch in the face. However, his character is nothing but a repeat of his “Step Brothers” character Derek, also a rich, insolent brat who thrives off of picking on losers. Had this been the first time we saw Scott as the ultimate office A-hole it would’ve been perfect, but Scott brought nothing new to the part and instead played the character with an air of desperation.

6. The Technology Adds to the Dream Sequences
A remake of Danny Kaye’s 1947 film was definitely due, if only to take advantage of current technology. The movie’s CGI makes Mitty’s fantasy and real-life adventure sequences all the more fun and crazy, from the animated sharks surrounding him in the ocean to flames exploding as Mitty escapes from a burning building. However, some CGI seemed unnecessary and completely weird, such as a daydream scene where Mitty imagines himself aging reversely, Benjamin Button-type.

7. It’s the Perfect Christmastime Movie
Opening on December 25th, “Walter Mitty” is the ideal Christmas film. With opening day contenders like Meryl Streep‘s family drama “August: Osage County,” macho sport comedy “Grudge Match,” and Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” Stiller’s movie will be the ideal cherry entertainment for the entire family.

8. The Soundtrack Is Great
With empowering indie rock songs from Arcade Fire and Of Monsters and Men, along with a heavy focus on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” “Walter Mitty” is full of great music. The soundtrack definitely attempts to add an indie feel to the very mainstream movie, which, if anything, will bring wider attention to (slightly) lesser known bands and introduce the greatness of Bowie to a younger generation.

9. It’s a Good Oscar Contender
“Walter Mitty” has a good shot at getting a Best Picture nominee for its crowd-pleasing ability and feel-good nature. With a surplus of heavy dramas this year, Stiller’s film will shine as the fun yet sweetly sentimental family comedy. It’s unlikely the movie will go home with any golden statues, but we predict it will help skyrocket Stiller to directing bigger projects.

10. But Stiller Still Needs More Work as a Filmmaker 
This is undoubtedly the actor’s most ambitious film as a director and one that has the widest audience appeal. Stiller may not have proven himself successful in convincingly blending comedy, drama, andaction, but “Walter Mitty” is definitely a step in a better direction for his career behind the camera. The film’s many elements of reality and fantasy are a whole new territory for Stiller, and while he didn’t quite master them, we’re at least glad he’s moving away from slapstick comedy and closer toward big blockbuster crowd pleasers.

This article was originally featured on Moviefone on October 7, 2013.