The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has been director-actor Ben Stiller’s labor of love since he took on the project in 2011, and it shows. He pours himself into the role of Walter with the trademark overearnestness of his character, a man struggling to be loved and understood. What results is a film with almost no conflict or nuance, a movie as confused by its tone as it is transparent regarding its motivations. Its rare highs of fresh, daring absurdist comedy don’t equalize the film’s sappy, sentimental lows. For all its adventurous, fantastical elements, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is surprisingly tepid.
We’re introduced to Walter, a photo editor at Time magazine in New York City, amid a massive downsizing effort by the publication, a scheme to move content online. It’s a clear reflection of what’s happening to print today, but it doesn’t feel quite rooted in reality. Freelance photographers still submit shots on film, but downsizing happens at lightning speed. The delightfully bearded Adam Scott stars as Ted, the project’s villainous managing director, who hedges the magazine's last print issue on a mysterious lost 25th negative sent from the magazine’s famed field photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn).
We’re also given a hint of Walter’s middling romantic life -- mostly thanks to an overeager eHarmony rep who calls him incessantly -- wherein he pines for his coworker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). There are also his surprisingly friction-free relationships with his mom (Shirley MacLaine) and sister (Kathryn Hahn), who are never elevated beyond quirky exposition-spewing background actors.
All of these contribute to a hazy character whose troubles are glazed over by clichés. And the reason it’s so crucial for Walter’s reality to be perfectly grounded -- and where the film immediately loses its footing -- is that Walter is also a daydreamer. We’re privy to Walter’s grandiose fantasies, wherein he’s the hero, weaving in and out until he finally decides to risk everything to travel, and suddenly the two meld. Unfortunately, because we’re not given a properly solid feel, look and background to his waking life, when the twain meet, it’s fairly underwhelming.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a film with good intentions, beautiful visuals and sporadic dips into fresh humor (Scott and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as a drunk pilot are mostly to credit for that), but it’s impossible to feel anything for a man whose character arc essentially consists of hopping scalable hurdles with a healthy head start. If there were a recalibration of the highs and lows, a rooting in reality and a bit more trust in the audience’s ability to recognize nuance, Mitty could’ve been a touching love letter to what we yearn for and how we fight to grasp them.
The film is already dividing critics, so it’ll be interesting to see how it plays (and who it plays well to) once the movie releases on December 25. Until then, here are a few fun facts we learned from Stiller and Wiig during the film’s postscreening Q&A following its world premiere at the 51st New York Film Festival.
Six Behind-the-Scenes Fun Facts About The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
There Are Walter Fantasies That Never Came to Fruition
Stiller discussed the challenge of keeping the movie flowing while melding fantasy and reality. “Originally, we'd envisioned these much more elaborate fantasies that went on a lot longer,” he said. “And as we developed the script, we realized we had to keep on paring them down.” Usually the cuts happened for the sake of narrative momentum, but Stiller described one that was cut for, “Money, basically.”
“There was a fantasy that happened on Sixth Avenue when Walter and Cheryl were sitting by the fountain,” Stiller said, “When he had this Lawrence of Arabia fantasy where Ted and all the guys who work for Ted come galloping up on horses looking like Anthony Quinn, and they grab Cheryl and they ride the horses down into the subway, and they go through the subway and they come out the other side and they're in the desert, and then they end up… kind of singing the end song from Grease.”
The Cast Prepped for Shooting with Movie-Night Gatherings
“We all watched a few movies together and talked about what we felt we wanted it to be,” said Stiller. Wiig joked, “Oh my gosh, he’s like, ‘Let’s watch Zoolander! The Cable Guy!’ They were all his movies!”
Stiller laughed and rebutted by citing Wiig’s reference to one of his lesser performing directorial efforts, “Yeah, all the blockbusters -- Cable Guy!” He went on to specify, “No, we watched The Apartment. We watched Being There. You know, Local Hero -- just great movies that were just inspiring and not necessarily in any way to bring in something specific other than just watching something good that gets you excited to try to do something good, too. But that bonding experience, just watching stuff together and hanging out and having a connection before you get on set when there's pressure on, it doesn't just feel like another job. Like, everybody's in it and together.”
Shooting on Location in Greenland and Iceland Inspired Stiller to Join Instagram
“I actually joined Instagram while I was there,” said Stiller. “And then when I got back to New York, I quit because I was like, ‘I don't have anything interesting!’ [Laughs] I mean, New York’s great... I was just inspired to take pictures in Iceland because everywhere you turn when you're on your way to work in the morning is like, ‘Oh my God, this incredible sunrise,’ and it's just incredible, incredible weather conditions there all the time. Actually, a couple of my little Instagram pictures are in the end credits!”
Shirley MacLaine Was Almost Bestowed with a Nonacting Cameo
The production crew was given full access to the Life photography archives, which allowed them to pick from -- and highlight -- countless cover images. They generally chose to display covers that underscored Walter’s journey and the themes of his life, but they also discovered something interesting during the curation process.
“Shirley MacLaine was on three Life covers,” said Stiller. “At one point we thought, ‘Oh, that'd be fun to put her on the wall!’ We considered it for a while there!”
Ben Stiller’s “Aha!” Moment During a Stunt
Stiller’s role in the film is quite physical at times, and he attempted to do as many of his own stunts as possible. “We got in the water for real in Iceland,” he said. “And we were up there doing all those hiking shots, all that stuff up there on the glaciers and stuff. And the skateboarding, I got on the skateboard, too... At one point, I had to do a shot in the water where the boat -- it was a POV of the boat coming at me in the water -- and so the camera was in the boat, so the boat had to go away to shoot the shot, so they dropped me in the water and the boat went away, and I was just in the water in the North Sea with nobody around me and five-foot swells. I had that moment where I was like, ‘Okay, this is a movie, but this is also real life. There really could be a shark there!’ It was one of those moments were I thought I’d never in a million years have a chance to do something like this if I didn't have the opportunity to make this movie.”
The Helicopter Featured in the Film Has a History
“Jeff [Mann] found this 50-year-old helicopter that is the original Hawaii Five-0 helicopter from the series that Dano rode in,” said Stiller. “And the helicopter pilot kept on saying, ‘Man, I wish this thing had more power!’ Which is not what you want to hear.”
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