When I went to see Fight Club with my friend Tosh in ’99, it was on the strength of one of the best movie trailers ever made. What was brilliant about the trailer was that it made the film look really awesome as well as giving an entirely false impression of what it was about. So I went in thinking, “Cool, this will be a film about a fight club started by two guys who end up both in love with Miss She Ruined Everything.”
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was the flip side of this coin. I had no intention of seeing it, because I had seen the trailers. I figured I knew what it was about â€“ guy spends whole film mixing reality with his overactive imagination, wins girl at the end either in spite of or because of his imagination, and maybe she’s prone to daydreaming too. A film riding on fancy effects and little story, is what it seemed like, and I wasn’t keen.
But it was nothing like that. And presumably that’s why some people really didn’t like it. They went in expecting non-stop zany Ben Stiller comedy or a movie-length dreamatorium extravaganza or possibly a heartwarming romantic comedy. It definitely had some hilarious comedic moments. And the imagination sequences were great â€“ especially ones that leveraged Adam Scott and Ben Stiller’s physical comedy chemistry. And there’s romance, and some warming of hearts.* *
But all of that was secondary to the real story, which was a very sweet tale of a man who turned inwards when the development of his real life was hindered, goes on a journey of self-discovery in search of the aspects of himself that he lost, and arrives where he started having learned that he only ever had to look inside to find them. If that sounds familiar (American Beauty, Pushing Tin, High Fidelity, etc.), that’s because it’s well-worn territory. But who cares? The Secret Life of Walter Mitty tells the old story well, and if some viewers are confused by the peppering of elements like zany comedy, surreal visuals and heartwarming romance, I suspect it’s because they went in expecting those to be the main event. If anything, the film felt like director/star Ben Stiller had taken a Wes Anderson script and put his own spin on it. Which is to say: it felt good.
It also benefited from brilliant casting. Patton Oswalt, Sean Penn and Adam Scott are perfect in their supporting roles. If I could go back in time and give myself any advice before watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it would be this â€“ have no expectations, and don’t spend any time wondering if the whole film is taking place in Mitty’s imagination.