Blu-ray Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

By , Contributor
Back in 1939 it took readers of The New Yorker about ten minutes to see the world through the eyes of Walter Mitty. James Thurber’s original short story offers a brief, pithy glimpse at a man who escapes the humdrum realities of his life (including his nagging shrew of a wife) via his very active imagination. The 1947 filmed adaptation was a star vehicle for Danny Kaye, a quaint reminder of a bygone comedic era. Producer-director-star Ben Stiller brought The Secret Life of Walter Mitty back into the public consciousness with an effects-laden, big-budget vanity project.

Mitty languished in development hell for nearly 20 years (the remake was first announced in 1994 with Jim Carrey set to star, going through a parade of attached big-name stars and directors). Apparently the best Stiller could finally offer was a vapid, revisionist version of the demise of Life magazine. His portrayal of Walter is as vain as his Derek Zoolander, albeit without the laughs.

Walter is a middle-aged sad sack who works as a negative assets manager at Life magazine. He belongs to the online dating service eHarmony, but only uses it as a means to connect with someone at work who he sees daily. The woman, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), doesn’t even know his name, partly because she hasn’t been employed by Life for very long but mainly because Walter’s too chicken to speak to her.

Walter Mitty 2 (380x190).jpgHe labors in a dark basement workshop with one other co-worker. It’s announced that Life is folding as a print publication and transitioning to a strictly online presence (a jumbled, shorthand version of the American institution’s actual history; it has been out-of-print since 2000). Veteran photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) has selected a specific shot (known as “negative 25”) that he believes captures the “quintessence” of Life and mandates that it be used as the cover for the final issue. The only problem? Negative 25 is missing.

Screenwriter Steve Conrad presents Mitty as a mystery, sending Walter on a globe-trotting journey to track down the elusive photographer Sean in order to recover the missing negative. His job is at stake, but more importantly it gives him the opportunity to live his fantasies. Prone to “zoning out,” as his sister Odessa (Kathryn Hahn, channeling Joan Cusack) and mother Edna (Shirley MacLaine, terribly underutilized) call it, Walter is an avid daydreamer.

Walter Mitty 1 (380x252).jpgToo timid to attempt any of his dreams (which, to be honest, are mostly juvenile impossibilities anyway, such as cruising around NYC on asphalt skis), Walter views the missing negative as his chance to seize the day. Suddenly his real life becomes as exciting as his imagination. Forsaking caution, he’s soon riding in helicopters with drunken pilots, leaping into shark-infested waters, and climbing in the Himalayas.

It might’ve worked better if Walter wasn’t such a cipher. Stiller portrays him as an ultra-cool, skateboarding example of a nouveau macho stud. He’s superficially sensitive and pseudo-philosophical, yet simultaneously rugged. Cheryl will hopefully be won over, despite her dropping out of eHarmony. In fact, Walter develops a friendship with Todd (Patton Oswalt), an eHarmony customer service agent who frequently calls to offer tips on improving Walter’s “Been There, Done That” profile section. It’s worth wondering how much Neil Clark Warren paid to have his brand so prominently pimped throughout (to be fair, there are a couple of blatant commercials for Papa John’s Pizza sprinkled in as well).

Cheryl is totally undeveloped as a character, too. Wiig, such a gifted performer with a knack for off-kilter line readings, is trapped in a role that’s all mannerisms and no substance. The Icelandic shooting locations are beautiful, but they feel more like an ad for that country’s tourism bureau rather than an integral part of Walter’s “spiritual” journey. Take away the ludicrous fantasy sequences and we’re left with an impossibly banal, nearly nonsensical travelogue. The solution to the mystery of the missing negative is a cloying example of sickly, unchecked sentimentality.

Walter Mitty 3 (380x160).jpgBut again, that scenery looks tremendous and 20th Century Fox is to be commended for a stellar Blu-ray presentation. Stuart Dryburgh’s 35mm cinematography (fitting, given the film’s focus on old school, analog photography) will almost certainly inspire some viewers to contemplate an Icelandic vacation. Panoramic vistas are vividly detailed and the whole 1080p presentation carries a fine, gritty grain that lends it a pleasingly retro look at times (betrayed occasionally by some iffy CG sequences). The DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix is by turns bombastic (volcanic eruptions, gale force winds at sea) and subtle (Walter’s office environs). It’s always immersive and highly directional. The moody pop tunes that pepper the soundtrack are generously spread across the spectrum.

Special features include about 15 minutes of non-revelatory deleted, extended, and alternate scenes. More interesting is the series of bite-sized featurettes; ten in all, totally about 37 minutes. There’s also a photo gallery and a music video for Jose Gonzales’ “Stay Alive.” The Blu-ray package also includes a standard DVD and an UltraViolet digital copy.

Walter Mitty 4 (380x236).jpgThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty amounts to two hours of empty, carpe diem posturing. A story about the real end of Life magazine might’ve made a far more interesting (albeit entirely different) movie. I will say this much for it: had I been 14 when I saw this I probably would’ve proclaimed it “totally awesome.” It’s not difficult to imagine a disaffected youngster being inspired by this kind of fist-pumping optimism. But talented filmmakers like Ben Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad (whose 2008 feature The Promotion was one of the most criminally underrated comedic pieces of recent years) should’ve invested more for the rest of us.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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