The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is almost a good movie.
Despite an imbalanced script, it is very well directed by Ben Stiller. From the opening credits to the final shot, Stiller makes brilliant choices that fuel the film’s sense of fantasy, as well as its comedy. The way he incorporates Walter’s (Ben Stiller) daydreams is inspired, especially those surrounding Cheryl (Kristin Wiig), as is the way he focuses on others’ reactions to Walter zoning out. Even an extended chase scene works. Stiller’s direction is easily this movie’s greatest strength.
Steve Conrad’s script is its biggest weakness. While the writer develops his lead characters well enough, he doesn’t write a believable plot. Each time Walter’s investigation runs dry, Conrad tosses his protagonist another overly coincidental clue that sends him along the path again.
A problem which is only further heightened when Walter succeeds at near impossible tasks (a shark fight, anyone?), without any repercussion. Or when the epilogue resolves everything too perfectly.
Because so much of the plot is implausible, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty can never shake the sense it is one of its protagonist’s fanstasies, only this time elongated and hyper-detailed.
Two minor but important characters also prove problematic. Todd Maher (Patton Oswalt) behaves differently from any customer service agent I’ve ever encountered. He is not believable.
Either is Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), a recluse who so values privacy that he doesn’t give a phone number to anyone and always has multiple addresses, even for his pay-stubs. This socially unavailable man elaborately plans a clever gesture to please someone he’s never met. And also enjoys random soccer games with complete strangers. Why? Conrad never bothers to develop Sean enough to answer such questions.
As though it isn’t abundantly obvious, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’s screenplay isn’t good.
Which would be shameful regardless, but is made worse because the cast is so talented. Ben Stiller the actor plays Walter Mitty very well. He’s understated and modest even when doing things most of us would never dare try.
Kristen Wiig is just as good as Cheryl, offering a similar level of understatement. Sean Penn is terrific as always in a limited role, and Adam Scott (Ted Hendricks) plays his antagonist with just enough reserve that he never seems totally evil.
Stiller, the director, and an equally skilled cast cancel out the movie’s poor script and leave this an average film.