The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is perhaps best described as a crisis movie, and not really a “romantic adventure comedy drama” Wikipedia’s words, not mine. The reason I say that, is because it’s based in an all too familiar environment, the financial crisis, job instability, fear of unemployment, corporate takeovers driven by money and not culture. Mix this with the unavoidable day dreams of grandeur and wonder that we all have, humanizing this is Walter Mitty, who’s under pressure to find the “negative 25”, taken by Sean O’Connell, a highly esteemed photojournalist, who believes it captures the quintessence of life and should be used on the final cover of the magazine Walter works for. Walter begins a hunt for the negative, forcing him to make unusually outlandish and impulsive decisions, primarily revolving around travelling and skateboarding.
There are many moments in Walter Mitty that make it come unstuck. But the main problem is the narrative. It’s pretty much all over the place. For example, there is no real explanation for anything that happens. Sure, the pressure to find the negatives is the driving force, but this is effectively it, the entire trajectory of the film rests on this. The romantic element between Walter and Cheryl is perhaps the most emotionless, basic and non-believable relationship on-screen for quite some time. It’s totally unnecessary to the story, if anything it perhaps damages the story more than it adds to it. In addition to this, Walter supposedly works very closely with Sean, and it is explained in the film, that they’ve never really met, however, this relationship still seems incredibly odd. You’d expect there to be some kind of backstory, some kind of concrete history between the two, but because we jump straight in to this environment, which is about to be dismantled by the overly hammy Ted, the takeover manager, with little or no previous story, it makes it incredibly difficult to engage with any characters, despite a historical relationship being hinted at. And this is where Walter Mitty fails, the ambition behind the film cannot be doubted, but the execution and depiction of the incredible uplifting story of Walter, makes it impossible to follow.
Other criticisms have been that it runs like a Nike ‘Just Do It’ ad and not a feature film, and I get this. It does all too often push the ‘Just Do It’ message onto the audience. And whilst this isn’t perhaps a bad thing, it can feel a bit preachy and a bit elitist. I say that because the whole time I was wondering, “yeah but I haven’t got the money to do that”, “I can’t just up and leave my job to go travelling”, “to do even a quarter of this would need planning” and so on. You might argue that that goes against the message of the film, which is about self discovery and broadening your horizons, but it suggests that extreme action is the only way to do this, making it unrelateable on a massive scale. It’s like the Instagram account you wish you had, placing so much emphasis on the ability to see beautiful things, all of this underpinned by a lack of any real issues from our characters. They are as one-dimensional as they come, effectively making the journey that Walter takes completely impersonal. In trying to appeal to a wider audience, it seems any mark of a personality has been removed at the detriment to the films overall appeal.
Having said all that, the one interesting element of the film, is the mystery surrounding Sean’s character. The dialogue about him is well written and provides some much-needed intrigue and tension within the film. He’s played well by the equally off-beat Sean Penn (well-known for being a bit weird). He seems to be the only character in the film with any personality but unfortunately it just isn’t enough in a film which is schmaltzy for the sake of being schmaltzy. It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure type of film, because I did find myself enjoying it in parts, particularly the dry humour, but on reflection I felt it was lacking in any real substance. Unfortunately, the great soundtrack and clearly stunning visuals don’t make up for poor story telling and weak characters, which is a shame, because I think that it is the embodiment of what cinema should be, escapism.
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