I didn’t know what to expect with this movie. I’m not really a fan of Ben Stiller’s work. I love him in interviews, he has a great “off-stage” presence. Comes across as a guy I’d love to hang out with but his movies for the most part have not impressed me. The Night At the Museum franchise was solid. Meet The Parents was great and went downhill from there. Having him play the lead in an independent film that relies heavy on acting not schtick? Risky. I wasn’t expecting it to end well.
Color me surprised. Stiller delivered. Better than that, Stiller proved that not only can he act but he hold his own on the screen with both Sean Penn and Shirley McLain. No small feat.
The story is about what is really living. Stiller’s character – Walter Mitty – must face this question while dealing with three potential disasters coming to a head in his life. The first is the loss of his job at LIFE magazine as they cease the printing side of the magazine to move towards a digital presence. The second is the loss of his stellar reputation as the ‘neg guy’ as he is forced to search the globe for a lost negative that was supposed to be the final printed cover of Life. Finally there is the loss of a potential love if he can’t figure out how to take some risks in his life.
As Stiller fumbles around the globe learning what it means to really live, he has to confront his own personal demons of sorts. There is no demon here that is over the top or traumatic – which in my mind what gives the film its appeal. Walter has to face the same fears and insecurities that many of us face – is what I’m doing with my life really important? Do I matter? Am I necessary? Did I miss the opportunity for the biggest adventure of my life? Is that chance racing by me everyday and I’m just to scared/bored/blind to see it?
So if I’m so “up” on the movie, why is it only getting 3.5 stars?
The movie was highly frustrating. There are these “daydream sequences” that invade the movie during the first act. They are as subtle as a freight train and they are what initially drew me into the story. I immediately was attracted to the outlandishness of them because they not only brought humor to the film but allowed us to see Walter was not just a boring man. He had dreams. He only lacked the courage to chase them.
What is going to help him find this courage? Who knows but I loved these interruptions and wanted more of them during the movie. I thought it would have been a funny juxtaposition of these scenes along with what he actually chose to do. But for whatever reason, these sequences were completely abandoned after the first act of the film, never to be seen again. Why? Did it get to hard to write the movie this way, finding truth and meaning in exaggeration? Who knows. What I do know is that the rest of the movie suffered because of it.
There was also a lack of depth from the other characters. From Mitty’s sister to his jerk of a boss – the characters feel like caricatures. What is never presented to us is a nuanced person for Mitty to deeply interact with. For example, Wiig is introduced as Walter’s love interest but then she is absent for over half the movie. It is obvious that there is something about her that is driving Walter to this new lease on life but exactly what that is – we will never know.
Without a decent character for Walter to fight against or have tension with or get deeper with – the film sort of plods along from one adventure to another. The daydream sequences evaporate and with it goes the heart of the film. While the scenery is breathtaking and it is beautiful filmed from a visual standpoint, there isn’t anything in the script that drives the movie deeper or further along.
Sean Penn’s appearance near the end makes you crave for more of his character throughout the movie. The scene between him and Stiller on the mountain trying to capture a snow leopard on film is one of those scenes that film schools should dissect and study. It’s beautifully shot and acted. After the third line of Penn’s dialog you realize his depth is what this film missed the previous hour and a half. It’s the only scene like it in the movie.
It’s got a great direction and message – live, don’t just dream. Take those risks but then there is also nothing wrong with living a quiet, behind the scenes life either. I love this message, it reminded me of A River Runs Through It. The big difference? River had multiple characters worth exploring. Secret Life doesn’t. There just wasn’t enough in the script for it to be in that class of film.