The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has been in the movie pipeline for a while.
Based on a short story published in 1939, this particular version of the tale has been in development hell since the mid-nineties. There have been plenty of would-be Walters in that lineup, too: Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson. Just about every comedic actor out there with a bit of dramatic range has been attached to star as the milquetoast fantasist.
The role was not only eventually taken by Zoolander star Ben Stiller, but also the director’s chair too. Perhaps looking for a Carrey/Williams-style reinvention, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty might not have quite the ingenuity of The Truman Show, but it provides plenty of opportunity for Stiller to immerse himself in the character of a seemingly less-than-remarkable man.
In fact, it can be hard to believe to believe that this is the guy who played action hero idiot Tugg Speedman in Tropic Thunder. Just as Tropic Thunder made fun of overly earnest, Oscar-worthy fare – Speedman’s attempt to ape Forrest Gump in ‘Simple Jack’ earns him the admonition of a dark-skinned Robert Downey Jr. to “Never go full retard” – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty initially seems to be treading corny territory in its exultation of the power of the imagination.
Stiller’s Walter is a slight, colorless man. He lives alone and works a job processing photos in the back offices of Life Magazine. A less henpecked version of Danny Kaye’s 1947 take on the character, Walter Mitty is a man whose life is summed up by his eHarmony profile: under “Places visited” and “Things done”, he’s simply left it blank.
With his stillness and sense of restraint and his grey-blue eyes, so different than any role he’s played before, Stiller is perhaps most reminiscent of Peter Sellers in Being There, a film given a shout-out in Tropic Thunder. Pensive and lightly incredulous, it’s not a role made for show-boating; in that regard, it makes for something of a perverse choice for a star vehicle. As with Mitty himself, however, this sense of absence, of not quite being there, belies a vivid internal life.
This takes the form of abrupt segues in which Walter suddenly finds himself immersed. From hurtling into a burning building to rescue a three-legged dog to engaging with his obnoxious, bearded boss in a Family Guy “Chicken Fight”-esque chase (Adam Scott cast seemingly to type), these sequences are certainly broadly imaginative, but they serve mainly to take you out of the flow of the film.
They’re the sort of daydreams we’ve all had, but, while they serve to illuminate Walter’s hopes and wishes, they can come across a tad creepy. The second time you see Stiller romancing his coworker, Cheryl (played by Kristen Wiig), this time as a rugged mountain adventurer, it’s quirky and endearing. By the fourth time, the charm begins to wear off. It’s only Stiller’s endearing wistfulness that stops it ranging into truly creepy territory.
There’s also a protracted Benjamin Button gag that’s particularly weird and off-putting and seems to know it. It feels like an insert from a different film, a joke at the expense at the type of film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty could so easily become: expansive and saccharine. It any case, it’s uncomfortable, which, in the case of most of these fantasies, may be slightly the point.
Instead of being just a peon to the role of fantasy in our lives, Walter Mitty takes the anti-Terry Gilliam route and instead impresses upon us the need to life one’s life. Walter is drawn into doing so when a photo negative by roving photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) disappears en route to the office.
Given it’s supposed to capture “the quintessence of Life”, Walter sets out to track down Sean and recover it before the final edition of the magazine goes to print. Not incidentally much of the film’s cinematography captures the clarity and dynamism of some of the best-known of these.
As plots goes, it’s fairly light in jeopardy, more of an excuse to get Mitty moving, take him out of himself. As he begins to branch out – notably leaping aboard a helicopter being flown by a drunken pilot during a thunderstorm to the tune of ‘Space Oddity’ – Walter begins to blossom as a person. Its in these moments that the film is at its best.
Like his performance in the film, Ben Stiller’s direction of Walter Mitty is quietly impressive. Cribbing liberally from Wes Anderson’s playbook – Stiller worked with him on The Royal Tenenbaums – every shot is perfectly framed and each scenario dusted with whimsy.
If occasionally the ergonomic cleanness of it all makes it feel slightly like Walter is making his way through at Nike commercial, it does equally manage moments of near genuine inspiration. There’s a moment of impromptu soccer playing in which this feels literally the case; even if the product placement is more than a little egregious. There are even a few great lines (“It’s not a poorpoose!”).
Kristen Wiig is lovely in her role as single mum Cheryl. If never a fully developed human being, she at least feels like she might exist beyond Walt’s circuitous pursuit of her. Sean Penn is memorable in his short appearance as daredevil Sean; bringing cool and gravitas to a part with next to no agency of its own. Equally, his performance in I Am Sam would seem to have been the inspiration behind Downey Jr./Kirk Lazarus’ “full retards” warning. The casting of “Todd” from eHarmony, meanwhile, makes for a nice surprise.
Ultimately, Walter Mitty’s secret life may not be as interesting as his real one – as far as “real” moments go, the understated box hug is perhaps my favorite. Nevertheless, it serves for cheery, aspirational escapism about living your dreams, not dreaming about living. It might not really be quite as simple as growing a beard and serving Afghani warlords fruit cake, but, as far as end-of-the-year viewing goes, it’s a welcome break from The Hobbit/Wolf of Wall Street.