Critics are divided about whether or not Ben Stiller‘s take on “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is visionary or just vapid.
The special effects driven comedy debuted last weekend at the New York Film Festival, where it received an enthusiastic response from audiences, but polarized reviews. Some commentators praised the film as a bold step forward in the “Tropic Thunder” star’s evolution as a filmmaker and others faulted the film for being tonally inconsistent.
Of course, just getting “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” to the screen is a significant accomplishment. A film version of the James Thurber short story about a milquetoast who loses himself in daydreams has been kicking around for over a decade, attracting interest from the likes of Jim Carrey, Steven Spielberg and Mike Myers without ever managing to get off the ground.
The movie debuts on Christmas, so its possible that a consensus will emerge over the coming days and months. For now, distributor 20th Century Fox is hoping that with Stiller’s name above the title and a feel-good storyline, “Walter Mitty” can emerge as the kind of film that plays well with both Oscar voters and the movie-going public, making it a rare critical and commercial triumph.
TheWrap’s Robert Hofler was firmly in the camp of the haters — knocking the picture as an enervating affair. It might have worked better, he argued, if Stiller had tapped into the reservoirs of rage that characterized his work in films like “Meet the Parents.”
“Unfortunately, this ‘Mitty’ tries too hard, and as a result his many adventures — both real and imagined — are neither intriguing nor amusing,” Hofler wrote.
The problem with “Walter Mitty” may have been its long-gestation, IndieWire’s Eric Kohn wrote. He argued that the film is an example of too many cooks embellishing a recipe until it becomes tasteless and likening the film to an uplifting, but empty Mac commercial.
“Passed through so many hands, its underlying appeal has been steadily rubbed out: Stiller’s take has no discernible personality, much like Walter himself,” Kohn wrote.
Peter Debruge of Variety argued that playing down the comedy works for the film, giving it the kind of earnestness and uplift that one associates with Cameron Crowe.
“While the confusing mix of genres and ideas might throw first-wave auds for a loop, the approach is timeless enough to hold up,” Debruge wrote. “Who knows? In 20 years, the death of Life might seem less outdated, and Walter’s awakening could be as profound as he imagines.”
The film is sentimental and that may be its undoing with certain constituencies, Mike Ryan of the Huffington Post wrote in a largely favorable notice. Yet what some might decry as mawkish, he found emotionally invigorating, particularly thanks to the visual effects work that spins celluloid wonders out of Mitty’s fantasy life.
“And, yes, it’s sappy,” Ryan wrote. “But sometimes sap tastes good. And it helps when the sap looks beautiful, and ‘Walter Mitty’ is a gorgeous-looking movie.”
It’s a technical masterwork that also contains superb contributions from Stiller as both actor and star, raved Joey Magidson of FirstShowing.net.
“This is easily Ben Stiller‘s most accomplished bit of acting and directing yet in his extensive career,” Magidson wrote. “His performance is incredibly sympathetic and he perfectly captures Walter’s transition from ordinary and meek to extraordinary and confident.
Don’t look to David Poland to make sense of “Walter Mitty.” The pugnacious Movie City News guru wrote that he couldn’t quite make sense of his feelings for the film. On the one hand, he wasn’t feeling all the fantasy stuff. On the other, he hailed the picture as Stiller’s best work as a director (his behind the camera resume includes “Tropic Thunder” and “Reality Bites”).
“Audiences could make it a big hit… which is not to say the ‘commercial hit’ tag that Oscar consultants for other films have tried to hang around its neck,” Poland wrote. “The film is more emotionally ambitious than that. But can it be ‘The Blind Side’ or a less spiritual ‘Life of Pi’ for audiences? I can’t discount that possibility.”