The Secret Life of Water Mitty, which debuted on Saturday at the New York Film Festival, is for saps. I'm using the word "sap" in the most positive way possible. (And, I'll admit, I am a bit of a sap, because I enjoyed The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.)
Mitty's greatest asset -- its earnestness -- may be, at the same time, its greatest detriment: this is the year 2013, and "earnestness" is not always looked upon as a desirable attribute. And, boy is Walter Mitty earnest.
Its earnestness shouldn't come as that big of a surprise, for a couple of reasons. The first being that this story originated with a 1937 short story by James Thurber that was eventually made into the 1947 film of the same name starring Danny Kaye. The second is that Ben Stiller (who both stars in and directs Walter Mitty) has made no secret about the amount of work he's put into this film, best illustrated by last year's fantastic New Yorker profile that's, sadly, not online (the abstract is here). Yes, Stiller hangs his heart on this movie's proverbial sleeve. Stiller is basically saying, "Here's who I am. Take it or leave it." Many will take it. Many will roll their eyes.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the story of, yes, Walter Mitty -- the man in charge of the care and upkeep of the various photographic negatives at Life magazine, who often drifts into fits of (sometimes clinically disturbing) day-dreaming about an exciting life that he does not lead. He is also in love with his co-worker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), but since Mitty is a bit of a sad sack, his attempt at wooing her is relegated to "winks" on eHarmony. (He can't even do that right.)
After a corporate takeover of some kind, Life's transition leader Adam Scott (whose beard deserves an Oscar nomination) announces that the next issue will be its last. (A sadly well-worn, real-life trope for many, many people.) The final cover will be from the apparently ornery yet legendary photographer, Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), who has sent the all-important negative to Mitty. Unfortunately, Mitty cannot find this negative, which leads him on a search for the somewhat reclusive O'Connell, a man who could literally be anywhere in the world.
As you may be able to guess, this predicament leads Walter on an adventure to find the lost negative but, yes, to also find himself. If this sounds cliché, that's because it is cliché. (It's also cliché to dismiss something as cliché. But I'm allowing it here because I liked the movie even though I'm not really selling it right now.)
Mitty (the character) is interesting because he's not the usual schlub that we usually find in this type of movie. Mitty seems like a nice enough guy: He likes his family (this movie, like all movies, could have used more Kathryn Hahn, who plays his sister), likes his job and likes living in New York City. Yet he looks up one day and realizes that 16 years have passed and he hasn't really done much else but take care of his family, do well at his job and live in New York City.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a coming-of-age movie, only the person coming-of-age happens to be a 47-year-old man. The world is not at stake -- really, very little seems to ever be at stake during this movie, but that's not really the point. And, yes, it's sappy. But sometimes sap tastes good. And it helps when the sap looks beautiful, and Walter Mitty is a gorgeous-looking movie.
Walter Mitty is a straightforward story about a nice man who goes on a nice adventure and meets nice people while nice music plays in the background. It's earnestness for the sake of earnestness -- which will either appeal to you or it will turn you off. For me, on this day (hopped up on cold medication, I should add) it was the former.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.
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