Ben Stiller directs and stars in 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,' James Thurber's classic story of a day-dreamer who escapes his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of fantasies filled with heroism, romance and action. When his job along with that of his co-worker (Kristen Wiig) are threatened, Walter takes action in the real world embarking on a global journey that turns into an adventure more extraordinary than anything he could have ever imagined.
It's very hard to describe 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' to those of you who haven't seen it yet. With Ben Stiller (who also directed and produced) and Kristen Wiig in the leads, you might think this is a comedy, but – aside from a laugh here or there – it's definitely not. Or you might have read the original 1939 story (or seen the 1947 Danny Kaye film) upon which this movie is based. However, it's not that either, at least not after the first half hour or so. For some reason, Forrest Gump kept coming to mind – but not so much because the two movies share much similarity, but because 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' compares to 'Gump' in originality – it's a movie that doesn't fit easily into any particular genre and is very much its own thing.
For those of you unfamiliar with James Thurber's 1939 short story, it basically told the tale of an 'Average Joe' who escapes his hum-drum existence by fantasizing/daydreaming about being a handful of different people – from a war hero, to a surgeon, to an assassin. It's something most people do from time to time, the old "I wonder what my life would be like if…" scenario. The 1947 movie, which reportedly Thurber hated, was used as a way for Danny Kaye to show off his acting range by playing a series of different roles.
With that in mind, you'd probably expect this latest version of 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' to be a tool for star Ben Stiller to highlight his comedic talent through a variety of different characters. After all, he was quite good at doing that in his short-lived TV series, 'The Ben Stiller Show', and has shown his range at playing different comedic types in flicks like Tropic Thunder and Zoolander. For the first half-hour or so of 'Walter Mitty', that's exactly what this movie is, with Stiller playing an employee of 'Life' magazine (the film uses the downsizing and closing of 'Life's print magazine as a plot point, but ignores the fact that this happened in the early 2000s, and sets the movie in the modern-day) who often 'zones out' and fantasizes about more eventful things happening to him – like rescuing a dog from a burning building or getting into a fight with his new boss, who has arrived on the scene to downsize the company. While die-hard Stiller fans may enjoy those sequences, I found them to be a distraction from the heart of this story, which finally gets going at around the 45-minute mark.
Also a distraction is Mitty's boss, Ted (played by Adam Scott), who seems like a caricature of every 'evil boss' we've seen in movies, rather than a living, breathing human being – which most of the other characters in the film come across as. Scott plays the role like he's in a straightforward comedy, making almost every scene that he's in seem as if it's part of a different film.
When he's not fantasizing about becoming a hero or standing up to his boss, Walter Mitty is an introverted guy at work who's afraid to approach the gal he's had his eye on for quite some time. He's joined a dating site (eHarmony serves as one of this film's least annoying product placements, while a Papa John's restaurant gets the honor of being the most annoying one) and found her profile there, but a glitch in the system prevents him from even sending her a 'wink'. Mitty's ongoing conversations with an eHarmony representative (played by Patton Oswalt) are one of the movie's more charming ongoing bits. The rep asks Walter why he hasn't filled out the section of his profile that lists the exciting things he's done in his life, and Mitty has to confess that he hasn't done all that much.
Things turn for Walter when 'Life' photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) sends a negative to the magazine that O'Connell assures is cover-worthy. The one problem, though, is that Walter can't find the negative he sent, leading him to decide to fly to Greenland (where O'Connell's last check was sent, although his whereabouts are otherwise unknown) to try and track the photographer down. It's at this point in the movie – when Mitty decides to be a little more adventuresome – that the film really takes off. It drops Walter's fantasies for real-life action, and the story becomes so much better for it. While it really has no resemblance to the original short story (or even the Kaye movie) anymore, it's a whole lot more fun to watch.
Although he's directed a number of theatrical features to date, there's been nothing so far that has distinguished Ben Stiller as a top-rate director…until now. 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' is one of the most beautifully shot movies I've seen in a long time (credit should also go to the cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh) and adds a lot to one's enjoyment of the proceedings. I also enjoyed the fact that, other than the film's daydream sequences, Stiller – for the most part – plays things straight. His Walter Mitty looks and feels like a real human being carrying some real sadness around with him, rather than a 'movie version' of such a person, and the film is much stronger because of it.
Because of the first section of 'Walter Mitty' and all those fantasy sequences (which were a big selling/marketing point of the movie, but ultimately don't mean much to the story), I can't give this film a rave review, but I can say it was much better than I thought it would be and one of those real rarities in Hollywood: a film I still find myself thinking about long after I've viewed it. Ben Stiller doesn't quite hit a home run here, but I found 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' to be original and memorable enough to hold up to repeat viewings.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' makes its way to home video in a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD combo pack in which the 50 GB Blu-ray, DVD, and insert for a digital copy of the movie are housed inside an eco-friendly Elite keepcase. A second insert contains a code for a free photobook from Shutterfly. Neither the Blu-ray nor the DVD are front-loaded with any trailers. The main menu consists of three windows across the screen (whose borders are designed to look like photo negatives) that show various bits of video footage from the movie. The release comes with a glossy slipcover whose front matches the front of the box cover slick, but whose back is slightly different, showing just the photos and text of the slick's back cover (although slightly redesigned/rearranged) without all the specs. The Blu-ray has been encoded for Region A only.
There are a pair of retailer exclusives with this release. Target is offering a version that comes with a 30-page booklet featuring 'Life' magazine covers, while Walmart's version has an alternate slip cover (showing Mitty standing on top of a shark in the water) and includes a CD containing soundtrack music from the movie.
'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' was shot in 35mm on various Arricam cameras, and looks absolutely gorgeous on Blu-ray, with wonderful details, sharp images, and colors that really 'pop' without ever being too warm or oversaturated. Black levels are outstanding, and both contrast and overall skin tones are consistent throughout. Grain is evident throughout, but nicely pushed to the background. In other words, the movie retains its filmlike-look, without having to sacrifice the detail that high-def provides. The film is presented in the 2.40:1 format, and has an epic scope to it that looks great on widescreen HDTVs.
I detected no evident issues with banding, aliasing, or other compression problems. In short, this is a wonderful, reference-quality transfer of a beautifully shot movie. Those buying the disc will want to use it to show off their home theater, since (as you're about to read) the audio quality is equally great.
Featuring an English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track, 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' is immersive and active during the action sequences in the film, but also quite distinct and fun to listen to during the quieter segments, where little sounds that one normally wouldn't expect to stand out come across with a crisp clarity. The track features some great low-end use and some fun directionality as well (take, for example, the Iceland scene where Mitty spots a plane flying overhead into the heart of an erupting volcano). Everything is well-balanced here, including the movie's numerous musical cues, which are also quite crisp and mixed well with the rest of the track. The dynamic range throughout is excellent, making the audio (like the video) reference-quality stuff.
In addition to the English lossless 7.1 track, the Blu-ray also includes a wealth of other audio options: 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, Polish, Hungarian, and Turkish, as well as a 5.1 English Descriptive Audio track. Not to be outdone by the number of audio tracks, the subtitle list is even more impressive, with offerings in English SDH, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Portuguese (Brazil), Russian, Arabic, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Estonian, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Latvian, Lithuanian, Chinese, Polish, Romanian, Serbian, Slovenian, Turkish, and Ukranian.
Although not really a comedy, and a movie that has its biggest problems when it's trying to be loyal to its source material, 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' turned out to be my favorite film by Ben Stiller, both as a star and as a director. It's beautifully shot, nicely paced, and has some real heart to it. It's not the kind of movie you'd expect from Stiller, which adds to its charm. Despite the big budget, it's got a simple, heartfelt story to tell, and it's in the quieter moments that 'Walter Mitty' really shines. Recommended.