Review – Wanna Know A Secret? (“The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty”)

Languishing in development hell since 1994 and originally meant to be a Jim Carrey vehicle with Walt Disney pictures, this movie has gone through many, many rewrites with some noted actors as its leads (Owen Wilson, Mike Myers, Sacha Baron Cohen) before finally settling on Ben Stiller who, since no director was attached to the project, decided to direct the film himself.

The plot, such as it is, deals with the ultimate demise of Life Magazine as a printed magazine and moving to an on-line magazine format. While the employees prepare to get laid off, Walter Mitty (Stiller), a shy, introverted man,  is in charge of all photo-negatives that Life has printed for the past 16 years, especially from Life’s number one ace photojournalist, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). His last can of photo negatives come in, but is missing negative #25 which, according to O’Connell’s notes contains the “quintessence of Life magazine” and MUST be used for the final front cover. The new company owner, Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), the quintessential dick if ever there was one, tells Mitty that without that photo, he’s fired.

Meanwhile, Mitty has fallen for fellow employee Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), a single mom who so laid back she’s practically comatose. Together they piece together photographic clues as to the whereabouts of where O’Connell might be, so Mitty can track him down and find out where (and what) missing negative #25 is.

All through this, Mitty is given to fantastic fantasies when he temporary “zones out” and sees himself as an action hero, a superhero, a suave international rock climber, or a Benjamin Button rip-off. His mother (Shirley MacLaine) and wanna-be actress sister (Kathryn Hahn) try to give him sage advice, but he usually ends up listening to Todd (Patton Oswald), his E-Harmony phone service representative.

With the front cover deadline only a few days away, Mitty suddenly gets a burst of crazed inspiration when he “sees” a photo of O’Connell beckoning him to join him. Boom! Just like that, Mitty goes off on a lark, hoping a plane to Greenland (O’Connell’s last know position), then on to Iceland, where he’s almost killed by a volcanic eruption just as he sees the elusive photographer disappear into the smoke and ash. Dejected, Mitty returns to NYC, but finds another clue to O’Connell’s whereabouts and faster than you say “here we go again”, he’s off to Afghanistan and then to the Himalayan mountains where he finally meets the man, the myth, the legend!

The missing negative is recovered through a series of coincidental misadventures and the front cover of the final Life Magazine is revealed in an ending that is anti-climatic, dull, and predictable.

Stiller may have directed this, but the plot-hole riddled screenplay by Steve Conrad is more of one man’s personal journey of self and a travelogue rather than a full-on comedy you’d expect (and want) in this movie. Walter’s “Mitty Moments’, where he zones-out and goes into his fantasy world, are the best parts of the film but sadly, only occur a couple of times and last a scant few seconds to a few minutes AND are only in the first act. It needed WAY more of those comedic moments peppered through the entire movie.

Yes, Stiller has a keen eye for direction and Stuart Dryburgh’s grandiose cinematography of Greenland, Iceland, etc. is breathtaking, but Stiller’s forte is broad comedy which the movie starts out with, and then dissolves into a flat, heart-bleeding mess with Mitty as a poster child for any self-help book section of a library.

Another beef I have with this movie is the blatant product placements throughout this entire movie. . . I mean, besides the obvious Life Magazine.  E-Harmony and Papa John’s Pizza, for example, are exploited like they had stock in New Line Cinema or Samuel Goldwyn Films! Am I watching a movie or a two hour commercial for Cinnabon?

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)

Best not to mess with perfection.

This is one of Danny Kaye’s finest performances, next to his Sir Giacomo in “The Court Jester“. This story, (based on the James Thurber short story) has Walter Mitty as a naive, introverted, milquetoast daydreamer who still lives with his bossy mother (Fay Bainter) in NYC.

His equally bossy boss at Pierce Publishing, Mr. Pierce (Thurston Hall) steals Walter’s great ideas and then passes them off as his own, much to Walter’s unsuccessful attempts to assert himself. This, coupled with his childishly dimwitted fiancée, Gertrude Griswold (Ann Rutherford), her obnoxious would-be suitor that loves to see Walter fail, Tubby Wadsworth (Gordon Jones) and Gertrude’s loudmouth mother, Mrs. Griswold (Florence Bates), and it’s no wonder that Walter escapes into a fantasy world of daydreams.

He imagines himself an ace RAF fighter pilot, a brilliant surgeon, a gay clothes designer that hates women, a sly riverboat gambler, and more… and each dream accompanied by a beautiful and mysterious woman (Virginia Mayo) and a comical “depocketa-pocketa-pocketa” sound. Suddenly, one day Walter’s life is thrown into complete chaos when he accidentally runs into Rosalind VanHoorn (Mayo), who just so happens to resemble the girl in his daydreams. It seems Rosalind is working with her uncle to help secure some Dutch crown jewels hidden from the Nazis during WW2. A criminal named “The Boot” is behind the plot and has some diabolical henchmen that cause Walter real problems since they think he’s in on the caper.

Smitten by her dazzling looks and caught up in a real-life adventure that seems unbelievable (and even a little exciting) to him, Walter decides to help Rosalind out, despite the real (not imagined) danger. Soon their lives are threatened and killers are on the loose trying to secure the hidden jewels. This crazy incident causes havoc in Walter’s life and job, not to mention trying to hide his double life from his family and co-workers; no one believes his stories anyway!

The life changing events cause the real Walter Mitty to emerge and, in the end, Walter is a new man with a new found confidence. Filmed in brilliant Technicolor and dripping with lavish production designs, this Samuel Goldwyn produced gem is so much fun to watch, it should be shown on TV more often. And what’s not to love here? You have a great screenplay by Ken Englund, Everett Freeman, and Philip Rapp, (which James Thurber hated, BTW) and directed by Norman Z. McLeod.

Then you have Danny Kaye’s impeccable songs and perfect comic timing, Virginia Mayo’s rare beauty, the outstanding secondary character actors thrown into the background mix, and even the great Boris Karloff showing up as would-be novelist/psychiatrist. (“I know how to kill a man and leave no trace”).

Perfect.

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