The reviews for Ben Stiller’s THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY are embarrassing. Not for Ben Stiller, or the movie itself, but for the critics who wrote them. More on that in just a second.
To begin, I love and have always loved Thurber’s original short story: a henpecked, mediocre married man dreams of being anyone but himself, and at the story’s end (the entire action covers maybe a half hour of his life) he dreams of his own execution. The story is funny and sad, the illustrations are wonderful, and the premise is (I assume) universal – we all wish to be something other than what we are, at least at times. Thurber’s story is about a man who will never do anything other than that.
The film was adapted for the screen in 1947, and starred Danny Kaye. The film took the conceit of the original short story (an ineffectual man daydreams of being something other than what he is instead of pursuing life) and used it to tell a story about a man who finally ends up in a life like his dreams and is fundamentally changed for the better. How is that movie remembered nowadays? Empire listed it as one of the 500 best movies of all time.
Cut to 2013, where the Kaye film has been loosely remade, after several decades of false starts, by Ben Stiller, who also stars in it. The Stiller film wisely uses the premise of the Kaye film and tells a contemporary story with it, but in effect the logline is the same: a man finally ends up in a life like his dreams and is fundamentally changed for the better. They even kept the dream girl aspect of the Kaye film without resorting to the modern cliché of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. What they abandoned is the misogynistic element of a shrewish wife (the original short story) or a shrewish mother (the Kaye film) and replaced it with a well-thought out internal obstacle.
So imagining that all else is equal, how is this one being received? Metacritic shows 54, “mixed or average reviews.” This isn’t what makes me angry – I don’t pretend that everyone needs to be on the same page about what makes a movie great or terrible. While I don’t believe that all opinions are equal except in the most basic sense (this should be obvious: the opinion that Citizen Kane is a landmark achievement in cinema is empirically a better opinion that the opinion that Citizen Kane is a propaganda machine for our reptilian shapeshifter overlords), the kinds of things that Stiller’s film is being criticized for belies a tragedy of our culture; namely, that if we exalt the potential of the human spirit, we are being childish.
Well, fuck you.
Let’s look at some of the negative reviews. From The Guardian: “It’s too airless, too perfect, a dream of connection with humanity that flees contact with actual people.” Let’s work backward from that. There are only a handful of characters in the film (Mitty is in every single scene, often alone), and each one of them is recognizable in the world where we live. Mitty’s sister is a flaky aspiring actress, yes, but also a kindhearted person who is there for her family as much as she can be, and given the fact that Walter became the family’s protector at such a young age, we understand why she would end up that way. Mitty’s mother is a caring, devoted mother who relates to the people around her in totemistic ways: her box of Walter’s “stuff,” the piano from her husband, and this culminates in a simple but important act of remembrance late in Act 3. Kristen Wiig’s character, Walter’s intended love interest, is perhaps the most grounded person Ms. Wiig has ever played. Her Shelby (outside of the self in Walter’s fantasies) is a woman with a son she cares about and is trying to raise as a responsible young man, a slightly messy relationship with her son’s father that is not over-the-top in its tragedy. The “magical mentor” character, played by Sean Penn (who has only a single scene) is actually a person. His extraordinary traits are linked to his career (either as a product of them or a reason for choosing that career or, likely, both), and the teachable moment isn’t supernatural wisdom – it’s the kind of observation a photographer would likely be very sensitive to. These people aren’t simply floating around in Walter’s world – he has meaningful interactions with every single one of them, all of which make perfect sense within the context of the world of the film.
Which brings me to the “too perfect, too airless” criticism. What, exactly, is the advantage of making an argument that is not airtight? There are many movies that I love and consider to be successful that are “messy” and “flawed,” and those flaws add to the charm of the film. But since when are flaws a requirement for a successful piece of art? Yes, real life is often messy and flawed. But we aren’t talking about real life – we are talking about art, which gets to take great liberties in its distillation of life. That is what makes it art. Charlie Kaufman handled this argument very nicely in his film Adaptation, where the screenwriter character attends a seminar with Robert McKee and asks why he can’t just tell a story about normal things happening to normal people. McKee yells at him – “What gives you the right to waste two hours of my life?” (And to the criticism that this is Kaufman justifying his own bizarr-o third act of that film, I will counter that exactly none of Charlie Kaufman’s films are about normal things happening to normal people.)
Here is another one: Glenn Kenny, writing on Roger Ebert’s site. “Let me be frank: to use the words of the august founder of this web site, I hated, hated, hated this movie.” If you aren’t familiar with Roger Ebert’s reviews, Mr. Kenny just (by association) compared The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. Because that’s totally fair. What is his complaint? “For all that, I'm giving the movie two stars, which, in star speak, translates to ‘fair.’ I'm not doing this as a sop to anyone who might end up charmed by the sometimes winsome and always self-help-book-like particulars of Stiller's romantic fable, which is can-do optimistic in rather stark contrast to Thurber's highly pessimistic mini-parable. I'm doing this because I'm not entirely sure that my negative reaction isn't a sort of personal carry-over from Stiller's last directorial effort, the intermittently amusing but entirely smug and hateful TROPIC THUNDER.” That’s right – a professional critic, writing on a prestigious website, just modified his own review because he wasn’t sure he could distinguish between his feelings about the movie he was writing about, and his feelings about Ben Stiller’s last picture, 2008’s TROPIC THUNDER, a wildly successful and critically acclaimed movie. And all because Mitty’s storyline was apparently cloying to him. Here he is at the end of the review: “So again, there's a real question as to how reliable my assessment of "Mitty" as a weak-tea bunch of insincere pandering might be. On the other hand, your ability to swallow the movie's nth fake epiphany scored to the nth contrived-crescendo concoction by Arcade Fire or some other camouflaged emoting pomp rock outfit might not necessarily make you a better person than I. It may mean you are a more patient one, however.” All right, I’ll bite. Here is a quote by lauded critic Benedict Nightingale: “So often criticism seems to be a courtroom in which theatre practitioners are arraigned. If that is so, then perhaps the critic should think of himself as court recorder and defense attorney at least as much as a prosecutor and judge.” In other words, having that kind of patience is your fucking JOB.
I really could spend the rest of the day going through these reviews piece by piece, but I’ll sum up and shut up. Whether the negative reviews were calling the film “manipulative,” “too ambitious,” or “cloying” – and this describes nearly all of the negative criticisms – it is worth stopping to examine this attitude. What film isn’t manipulative? (Answer: none of them. That’s precisely what film, and all other arts, do.) And do we really want “too ambitious” to be a criticism? How about the many, many, many films that are not ambitious enough? Do they get a pass? The Secret Life of Walter Mitty uses a slightly cynical albeit charming short story and uses it to tell the story worth two hours of our lives and not simply a page or two of the New Yorker – a man comes to recognize his own life choices as untenable and breaks free of them. Mitty doesn’t end with a wedding, a perfect job, or untold riches. It ends with a man having watered and grown his own soul.