As a rule (and in practice), commercial filmmaking requires compromise, sometimes overtly (subject matter, casting), sometimes subtlety (story choices, dialogue, locations), but when that compromise takes the form of blatant product placement – and unfortunately that’s exactly what happens in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller’s first film as a director in five years (after Tropic Thunder) – it can fatally undermine an entire film and whatever themes or ideas, however sincerely believed and expressed, the filmmakers want to convey to moviegoers. Selling a product – in this case, eHarmony.com and Papa John’s (among others) – makes The Secret of Walter Mitty’s self-empowerment message through risk-taking seems hollow and disingenuous, as shallow and meaningless as an online match-making service or as empty and unwholesome as factory-made pizza. It’s a shame, though, because taken on its terms, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has more to offer than mere product placement.
The Walter Mitty (Stiller) we meet in the opening scene is the familiar milquetoast of James Thurber’s 1939 short story (first filmed as a star vehicle for Danny Kaye in 1947). He lives in a non-descript apartment in a non-descript building on a non-descript street. He takes the subway to work every day to work, though his incessant daydreaming means he occasionally misses his train. Mitty’s daydreaming hasn’t affected his employment with Life magazine (the real Life magazine ceased print publication more than a decade ago) in the Negative Assets department. Part of a two-man team, Mitty has spent the better part of 16 years cataloguing film negatives, including the work of Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), a globetrotting photojournalist Mitty deeply admires and respects.
Incapable of chatting up a new employee, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), Mitty turns to eHarmony.com. He opens an account so he can begin an online dialogue with Cheryl, but repeatedly fails. That in turn leads to a running gag involving Todd (Patton Oswalt), the Most Helpful Customer Service Representative of All Time. Todd initially tries to get Mitty to fill out his profile, but circumstances, mostly of the contrived kind, lead to lost or incomplete calls. It’s a bothersome, tiresome plot device that Stiller and his screenwriter, Steve Conrad (The Promotion, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Weather Man), should have dropped or cut back during the draft stage. Alas, they didn’t. To Stiller’s credit (as an actor, not a director) and Oswalt, their frequent conversations occasionally result in mild, inoffensive laughter. And in case you’re wondering, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty eventually pays off their long-running conversation by having them meet … at an airport Cinnabon (because you can never have too much product placement in a film apparently).
Mitty meets his real-world match in Ted Hendricks (a comically bearded Adam Scott), Life’s new managing director. Hendricks plans on taking Life into the digital realm, dispensing with print publication and everything – and everyone – associated with print publication, including we assume Mitty. Mitty, however, has one last task left: To find a missing frame, “frame 25,” from a roll of film shot by O’Connell. As the “Quintessence” of Life magazine, the frame will serve as the cover image for the final print copy of Life magazine. In turn, that leads to an increasingly desperate Mitty to set aside his super-powered/romantic daydreams for real-world adventure with stops in Greenland, Iceland, and the Himalayas to find O’Connell. Shot with an eye toward slick, polished visuals typical of TV and music video adverts, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is rarely dull visually, but the visuals often feel disconnected from Mitty’s simple story of self-discovery through documentary channel travelogue.
Those visuals, not to mention (again) the ubiquitous product placement, tend, however, to obfuscate the potentially rich, thematically deep story of a man entering middle age recognizing how much of his life he’s lost to inertia, inactivity, and fear. As Mitty’s backstory emerges, so do the reasons, recognizable, relatable reasons, also emerge that informed the choices he made (or refused to make), most of it family-related. His daydreams (everything from Latin Lothario to Mitty battling Hendricks in the streets of New York superhero-style) both help him cope with the disappointments he faces every day and impede him from making anything except marginal changes in his life.
Despite the corporate shilling, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty doesn’t make Mitty a hero except perhaps in his own life. He might achieve his goal of retrieving frame 25, but in the end, the digital economy doesn’t revert to a print-friendly one. That said, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty offers more than its share of uplift, some of honestly earned, some of it not, specifically in the resolution of key subplots. Unfortunately, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty never escapes the commercial compromises Stiller and presumably the primary Mitty rights-holder, Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., made to help offset production costs.