Walter's situation changes, but does his character develop? The original short story by James Thurber is about a hen-pecked husband who retreats to a fantasy world as a defense against his own feelings of inadequacy. We've already had two films this season—Inside Llewyn Davis and Enough Said—in which women are brutally verbally abusive in their speech to and about men, so I was glad enough to see that plot point go by the boards.
But the film wants to have it both ways. It celebrates Walter coming out of his shell, with the eHarmony (product placement) profile going from bland to exotic in order to show his character develop. At the same time, Sean, the film's swashbuckling adventurer, endorses as "the very quintessence of life" the normalcy that Walter is trying to leave behind. At the end of the movie, Walter is celebrated for the life he broke away from, not for breaking away from it.
Perhaps the strangest element of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is how beautifully it is filmed. The first half of the film could be a tourist commercial for Iceland, with the winter landscapes looking like they came straight out of Life (product placement) or National Geographic. Early scenes have some long shots of the urban environment, reinforcing how small a person is in society and in nature.
But the movie's form rarely merges with its content. Neither the playfulness of the opening credits and fantasy sequences in the first act, nor the grandeur of the landscapes in the second and third, are matched by any kind of visual spark or flair when Walter is in the real world—the world he, and we, are supposed to choose over Sean's jet-setting existence. Wiig is full of charm and energy, but the movie grinds to a halt every time Cheryl is on the screen. Maybe the script was reaching for something tender in Walter's tentativeness towards her, but visually and structurally, it ends up conveying just indifference. Scenes between Walter and Cheryl play like an afterthought, not a culmination.
2013 was a great year for quality films. But it also yielded few positive, encouraging, or heart-warming tales. Christmas usually brings at least one "fun for the whole family" kind of a film for those who want to go out to see something and not have to sit through three hours of The Wolf of Wall Street or one second of Anchorman 2. And The Secret Life of Walter Mitty could have been that something, but it ends up being a compromise film—the one nobody really wants to see but everyone can at least agree on when the other choices are sold out.
Or, of course, we could just all stay home and watch It's a Wonderful Life.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is rated PG for some mild action violence and language. Although the romance between Walter and Cheryl is chaste, there is some ambiguity as to whether she is actually divorced or just separated. Walter's new boss engages in some office bullying that could be traumatic for some kids who could relate. Walter drinks in a bar, and one gag is about him riding in a helicopter with a pilot who is obviously impaired by alcohol.
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.