The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013): The Love Hate Gap

This new adaptation loosely based on James Thurber’s 1939 short story was a highly anticipated year-end movie, possibly aiming for a spot in the coming awards season. It was released on Christmas Day, 2013, only to meet with disappointing critical reviews.

The-Secret-Life-of-Walter-Mitty

Any movie version derived from James Thurber’s short story first published in the March 18, 1939, issue of The New Yorker is allowed plenty of room for reinvention, since the original story is only about 2,000 words in length. If you’re interested to read or reread it, here’s the link. The story saw its first movie adaptation in 1947, starring Danny Kaye as Walter Mitty.

In Thurber’s story, Walter Mitty is a man living with an overbearing wife. He intersperses his meagre existence with heroic daydreaming. Behind the wheel of his car driving his wife to the hair salon, he would zone-out and imagine himself a fighter pilot piercing through a storm. At another time he would cast himself as a world-renowned surgeon saving a dying patient on the operation table, or as an expert shooter, or a war hero.

Over the years, Thurber’s Walter Mitty seems to have turned from a fictional character into a concept. The daydreamer has gathered mass appeal. Walter Mitty the character unleashes the escapist in us. It takes us out of our mundane, ordinary life and catapults us to brave, new worlds. It empowers and makes a hero out of Everyman.

This recent movie version has taken up such a challenge with fine colours. Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) works for LIFE magazine which has just been acquired, and a major downsizing ensues. The upcoming issue will be the last of its print edition. As the ‘Negative Assets Manager’, Walter Mitty is responsible for the cover. ‘Negative assets’ means, literally, the negatives of photo collection. And here’s the rub, the slide that is meant for this last cover is missing. Feeling responsible, Walter Mitty takes up the challenge to seek out its reclusive photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), who leaves his tracks in the remotest parts of the world.

Not quite a dramatic story arc, not quite a believable motive either, considering the digital age of the setting, seems an unrealistic task to conduct a real-life globetrotting search for a missing slide. But out of curiosity, I let the story lead and enjoy what comes next.

The arduous journey to find the mystical photographer offers me an array of visually stunning and surreal Walter Mitty-esques sequences. The initiation is when Walter Mitty jumps onto a moving helicopter in Greenland, upon imagining his love interest Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) singing ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’, urging him to take flight. Other breathtaking scenes that follow include longboarding by an erupting volcano in Iceland (my favourite), scaling the mountains in Afghanistan, and playing soccer with Himalayan dwellers against the setting sun.

Soccer match in the setting sun

In the office, Walter Mitty is the target of bullying from the hatchet man of the acquisition Ted (Adam Scott). Walter is also the secret admirer of coworker Cheryl. Too timid to declare his love, he hides behind eHarmony to hopefully connect with her anonymously. After Walter’s adventurous journey to find the mystic photographer, he is transformed into a braver man; ultimately, his true colours shine through, fantasy fulfilled.

Shirley MacLaine plays Walter Mitty’s supportive mother, an endearing role. Together with Kathryn Hahn as Walter’s sister, they bring some normality into our protagonist’s life. The three offer a few heart-warming moments.

Now, mind the gap. From the reviews and audience feedbacks, it looks like this is one of those ‘love-it’ or hate-it’ movies. Here are the stats of approval on Rotten Tomatoes: critics 48%, audience:76% On Metacritics it is similar: critics 54% and viewers 76%.

Why the discrepancy? I must stress that there are critics who love it, and, audience who don’t. Not that this is purely a ‘critics vs. viewers’ kind of showdown. But we do see the obvious gap between the two groups. What accounts for the gap? Here’s my analysis and speculation:

Those who hate the movie, see Ben Stiller. They see this as a self-serving project of the A-list Hollywood star directing himself in a role that sends him to all the improbable heroic scenarios. They see the production as a self-absorbed ego trip. Unrealistic storyline, much ado about nothing.

Those who love the movie, or find it entertaining and enjoyable, see Walter Mitty. They see the daydreamer, the self-defeating underdog going on a series of life-transforming adventures. They see the Wlater Mitty of today, a tiny screw in the humungous economic machine, dispensable, unappreciated, the tireless worker saving the day. They see love requited; they see dreams fulfilled.

What if… What if this whole production is Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty fantasy realized? Why should we mind? Anyone too high on the A-list to have no need for a Walter Mitty moment?

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Related Links: 

CLICK HERE To read the short story by James Thurber, ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, published in The New Yorker, March 18, 1939.

CLICK HERE to read an article detailing the LIFE magazine covers in the movie: “Walter Mitty and the Life Magazine Covers that Never Were”. 

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review.

23 thoughts on “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013): The Love Hate Gap”

  1. I saw this movie….I liked it. I didn’t love it but I could appreciate what it was. I DID see Walter Mitty and NOT Ben Stiller. I thought he did an excellent job being Walter. I do not particularly care for some of Ben’s stuff, especially his “stupid” movies…Dodgeball, Anchorman or Starsky and Hutch. I do, however like him is more dramatic/comedy roles like Meet the Parents/Fockers/Little Fockers. Although, the truly funny people in those movies were DeNiro, Streisand and Hoffman. I think Ben is a good actor and director.
    It was a little slow at first and I was beginning to second guess my decision to see it. But I loved the way it ended. It made me analyze what was going on…what/who was really in control of where he was going?
    Danny Kaye is a very difficult act to follow. I had to make sure I was separating the two stories since they were dramatically different. I would recommend this movie to some people, but not all. I believe it would depend on what I know they like; whether or not they knew about, or had seen, the original movie. I have never read the short story, but I will today! Thanks 🙂

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    1. Courtney,

      Have you seen Ben Stiller in Greenberg (directed by Noah Baumbach, with Greta Gerwig)? That would change your mind about his often type cast roles. Yes, of course I like him in Meet the Parents. I’m glad you see Walter Mitty when you watch this movie. I think Stiller has done a good job here, as star and director. I’m surprised to read some of the critics’ reviews, they sound almost hostile. While I don’t love it, I do like it. It’s a movie that I don’t mind rewatching in the theatre. As for Danny Kaye’s version, I’m still looking for it. I read that it’s also set in a publishing house, and that WM is an editor. So this newest version is more affiliated with the earlier movie than the short story. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts!

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  2. I didn’t mind this one much. It wasn’t perfect, but it also wasn’t all that bad neither. I think I was just mainly surprised by how capable of a director Stiller was at handling something as ambitious as this. Good review.

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    1. Dan,

      Welcome! You’re right, it’s far from perfect, but it’s a watchable movie. I’m surprised to read the negative reviews pointing at Stiller’s very intentions and motives, as if they had psycho-analyzed him. Glad to have you stop by the pond. Hope to hear from you again.

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  3. You give good review, Arti, but I’m definitely in the nay camp with this one. I did not plan to see it, but when I was visiting my family in California over Christmas my 19-year-old niece claimed that she wanted to see it so it turned into a family outing. The kid doesn’t read reviews and I am sure she has never heard of James Thurber. It is likely that she was expecting a comedy. I went with an open mind, accepted that BS was the Walter character, but I must admit that what I saw on that screen was a vanity project that, according to my friend, Milton, cost $90 million. That’s a stunning amount of money blown on a turkey. I think “12 Years a Slave” and “Her” were both made for about a third that amount. And, to me, those were two far superior films. Hollywood took a gamble on this hoping that his popularity would bring in box office and some big award nominations. It’s a steaming pile of bloat that got what it deserved. My niece hated it, but for different reasons. I’m sure she was hoping to see a variation of Greg Focker.

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    1. LA,

      Thanks for sharing your candid feelings about this movie. Good that we have comments from both camps.

      I think that’s exactly my point. When I watched it, not as a critic, not knowing Hollywood politics, unaware of how much the production costs… I saw Walter Mitty. And it was fun and entertaining for me. Knowing about the details of the production could lead one to speculate on motives, psycho-analyze the intent, leading to the vanity project conjecture. I can’t agree with your more that how much the production costs does not lead to how good a movie it is. That’s why I don’t consider that a relevant factor in reviewing. Here are two recent examples of production cost and rating: Walking With Dinosaurs: $80 million (37% Metacritic rating), 47 Ronin: $175 million (29% Metacritic rating). Of course, it’s always gratifying to see a low budget high quality production. Those involving CGI and high tech visual effects usually cost more than just basic drama.

      I agree with you that 12 Years A Slave and Her are excellent movies worthy of Oscar nods. While WM is far from the epic and artistic quality of Slave, or the ingenuity of Her, it’s still a watchable movie in terms of entertainment value. I personally know at least two people who have gone to the theatre to watch WM twice.

      Further, I don’t think viewers need to have read the story or know about James Thurber to appreciate the movie. I’m sorry to hear that your niece was disappointed. Greg Focker sure has made a lasting impression on today’s viewers. As for me, not that I’d read The New Yorker in 1939. As a matter of fact, I first read the short story in my high school English class. I still remember my assignment after reading it was to write a story imagining another fantasy for WM. Now that’s high school English in Cowtown, Canada. 😉

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      1. I had no idea it cost $90 million to make until Milton mentioned that to me recently. But having seen thousands of films since my parents first took me to see West Side Story at the El Rey theater in San Francisco in 1962 I knew it wasn’t cheap to make. But $90 million on something so trite is, to Milton and me, obscene. But so much of mainstream Hollywood is that. Most of my friends have no interest in seeing WM once. Milton only went because he sees almost everything.

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  4. Hmmm. This is one I really had no desire to see, not so much because of Stiller or the story (which I love) but because there is so much to see and so much I’m behind on, it just didn’t hit the top of the list. It still doesn’t but I do feel a little more confident about seeing it when I do. I like your analysis of the data — some see Mitty and like it, some see Ben and don’t. That’s good to hold. And I love the idea of it being his own mittyish project. I think I’ll trim down the Oscar list first — this will show up on cable soon enough, I think.

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    1. Jeanie,

      I usually see all the nominees when possible, but this year I’m also enjoying those which are not on the list, such as this divided fantasy flick Walter Mitty. And you wouldn’t believe it, I saw “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” today, and had a marvellous time. No, the story is a bit far-fetched, not very realistic, and clichéd, but then again, this kind of flicks are for escape purposes, pure entertainment. I had a great time. And you know what I think? I’m glad Kevin Costner is back and in good form… he ought to be Jack Ryan. Chris Pine looks… exactly, like a recruit. 😉

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  5. Thanks for your wrap up of the reaction! I haven’t seen any Ben Stiller movies so I don’t have Ben Stiller-fatigue. My brother and parents went to see the movie around Christmas time and brother commented that he thought Ben Stiller managed to play Walter Mitty and not Ben Stiller. My dad didn’t like the movie at all (to be fair, mysteries/suspense/spy movies are more his genre).

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    1. nikkipolani,

      As someone who enjoys photography, you may like to watch this movie for the remote places WM goes to, some stunning images and scenery. And yes, looks like your family is an accurate sample of the general public reception of the movie… split opinions. 😉

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  6. What a great review- I really like your distinction based on whether we see Ben Stiller or Walter Mitty. Much to my surprise I was able to see Walter Mitty, as I’m not too much of a Ben Stiller fan.

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  7. I wasn’t planning to go see this movie but after because I’m not a Ben Stiller fan, but after reading a review I decided to give it a try. I loved the story, will definetely try to read the short story by James Thurber. I did not like the movie as much as I thought I would especially the beginning, but the ending did bring a tear to my eye. The visuals/scenery were spectacular of places I will not likely visit

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    1. Yinling,

      It’s not an Oscar movie, but, not as bad as some have stated. I mean, there’s way more trash out there these days. And this one is at least… decent, and I think an acceptable reimagining using the WM character. Do click on the link to read the story. It’s more like a seed idea for limitless fantasies. Thanks for stopping by the pond. 😉

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  8. I haven’t read Thurber’s story but mean to soon, meaning, yes, I intend to see Walter Mitty after I’ve read the story. My favourite children’s book of all time is Thurber’s Many Moons but I haven’t had a chance to read a lot by him, so whatever people say about this film I’m going to read it and then see how Stiller transforms Thurber’s character.

    I admit I’m not a fan of Stiller in the Fockers or Something About Mary-ish types of movies only because those do not really interest me. But I really loved him in Reality Bites and Tropic Thunder.

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    1. Claire,

      Do click on the link in my post to the story in The New Yorker. I remember reading a couple of James Thurber’s stories in high school, studying him as a humorist. I’m not a Ben Stiller fan but I like his first Meet the Parent movie. I think he nailed the character. Other than that, I can’t say I like any of his other ones. His recent indie film Greenberg is quite good, that’s more the type of films I like to see than his comedies. This newest is more the idea of WM that appeals to me than watching another Stiller movie.

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      1. I haven’t seen Greenberg, I think. I’ll remember that. I don’t like his comedies, either, that much, which is why my favourite of his was Reality Bites. Except for Tropic Thunder, which was just super hilarious, especially Robert Downey, Jr.

        I’ll get a Thurber collection heehee.. I really can’t read stories online, don’t know why.. I can’t focus.. it’s just a very different feel reading something online, not as relaxing and quiet as when I have paper on hand.

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  9. I think it’s so very interesting that my childhood stories are coming back around. My parents had a collection of Thurber, and Walter Mitty was one of my best friends. I was quite surprised when I saw a remake in the works. And now NBC is planning a musical remake of Peter Pan for later this year – with Bill Murray (?1?) apparently interested in the leading role.

    I did see this film, and I was disappointed. I found myself mostly bored, and wishing it would end. It wasn’t Stiller (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another film with him in it) and it wasn’t that the story was so terrible. There was some beautiful photography. It’s just that it wasn’t Walter Mitty.

    The theme – ordinary person dreams of doing exceptional things – is fine, and I have no issue with creative adaptations. But each of us does that in our own way, and I guess Walter Mitty’s way of going about it was so individual, so striking, that when I hear his name I want to see him.

    That certainly is a testament to Thurber’s writing. I assuaged my disappointment with the film by reading the story again. 😉

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    1. Linda,

      I never much expected it to follow the original short story. After all, the story was short, and the character wasn’t fully developed but we do know he struggled with an ‘imbalanced’ marital relationship. Fantasy as an escape of his reality. That was an interesting concept and it had gained ground as a popular concept I guess. There are lots of room for re-imagining, esp. when it comes to the arrays of fantasies WM can create, the sky’s the limit. Sorry to hear you’re disappointed with this new version. I know, it’s that love/hate divide.

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  10. My neighbour told me she loved the film when i saw her the other day. I’m not a huge Ben Stiller fan (only because I find the way he acts makes me irritated, not an issue with star egos) but I would like to read the James Thurber story this came from. Now that sounds pretty good!

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    1. litlove,

      Yes, just click on the link in my post will lead you to the New Yorker short story. It had been decades since I first read it, so in a way, I’m glad it had gained renewed interest. Glad to know your neighbour had enjoyed the movie. From the comments on this post, it’s almost a half and half split in opinion.

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