(An edited version of this was first published in The New Indian Express)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, if anything, will go down as just the second major film of 2013 to have Greenland play an integral part in the plot. But there is more. Based on the short story by James Thurber, the film is a neat expansion of its theme albeit a little laborious at times with all the “live life to the fullest” messages. Directed by Ben Stiller showing Tropic Thunder level form in patches, the film in the plot sense has little to do with Thurber’s story. It only borrows the character and draws the supporting players around it, giving it a public real life and a secret fantasy one.
Stiller manages to keep the soul of the story intact. There is significant association between Mitty’s real life events and his fantasies in the short story. The film keeps them that way. Just after a superhero film like action sequence involving broken blocks of asphalt used as skateboards, we learn Walter Mitty was an ace skateboarder as he shows Cheryl’s (Kristen Wiig) son a few tricks. The daydream sequences are a joy and are complimented by Mitty’s hilarious returns to reality. The difference here is Stiller chooses to give an actual secret life to Walter Mitty. And it is a nice touch that even they reference his fantasies in different ways. In an early sequence after one of his numerous wake up calls, David Bowie’s Space Oddity is used in a mocking way. Later in the film, Mitty actually takes a rickety flight with an imaginary Cheryl covering the song. This makes it all the more surreal, with the apparently real sequences actually having a bit of fantasy in them. The inebriated pilot puts the film in a nutshell, when Walter Mitty looks at the small boat in the middle of the ocean and wonders where do they land and gets the reply, “We don’t land”.
Once Mitty embarks on his journey the film is visually stunning. While Stiller the director is in form, the actor pretty much is one note throughout. The people around him ace their much smaller parts. The ever effervescent Kristen Wiig makes you wish for her a meatier role. Shirley MacLaine gets a tiny but earnest all important part in Mitty’s scheme of things. There is a Sean Penn cameo providing all the epiphanies, some said and some left unsaid for the benefit of Walter Mitty. Some of them click like when he mentions how he sometimes doesn’t take the picture of that perfect moment he waits eons for because in that moment the camera feels like a distraction. But the film falters when it goes all didactic on us. There is too much of the message and you just want to shake Stiller up and say – Yes we get it, now just show us more of that beautiful Iceland and you trying to say Eyjafjallajökull.