Director: Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristin Wiig, Adam Scott, Adrian Martinez, Kathryn Hahn, Shirley MacLaine, Patton Oswalt, Sean Penn
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one for the dreamers. It is a film for those ordinary people who wish they could do something extraordinary. Walter Mitty is such a man. His respite from the mundane reality of his life is his active imagination. He is constantly zoning out to indulge in different fantasies and “what ifs.” Walter works in the photographic department of Life Magazine where he pines after Cheryl Melhoff who has recently joined the magazine in the accounts department. On his 42nd birthday it is announced that due to the changing marketplace Life will be ceasing publication, forced to go completely online. For its final cover, renowned photographer Sean O’Connell has sent through a picture he considers among his finest ever, representing “the quintessence of Life.” However, the negative is missing and with the clock ticking Walter sets off to track down the globetrotting photographer and the mystery picture.
This is the second adaptation of James Thurber’s 1939 short story, the first being Norman Z. McLeod’s 1947 film of the same title starring Danny Kaye. However, in this instance Thurber’s story – which was less than 2,000 words long – is used only as a departure point for Steve Conrad’s screenplay. The idea that the daydreaming Walter Mitty embarks on an adventure that goes beyond anything he’d previously imagined belongs to Conrad, as does the film’s subsequent exploration of a man rediscovering his adventurous spirit and lust for life.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is Ben Stiller’s fifth feature film as a director and is a marked departure from some of his other directorial efforts (Tropic Thunder, Zoolander, The Cable Guy). While there are still glimpses of Stiller’s sense of humour – for example one of Walter’s imaginings is based on his misunderstanding of the plot of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – in general the film has a more art-house tone. Stiller also demonstrates a much stronger visual aesthetic than you would expect from a filmmaker who is better known as a comedic actor. Stiller obviously allows the films content to influence its style, and thus this film about a man whose life has been devoted to a magazine and photographs is very intentional about presenting this story through both beautiful images and the interesting interplay of text and images.
In the film’s title role, Stiller goes against his usual performative style, appropriately underplaying the character. Walter is the kind of person who blends into the background, who to the outside world is entirely unremarkable. Kristin Wiig, also better known for more outrageous comedic work, makes for a delightful love interest, and similarly impresses with her willingness to underplay. Shirley MacLaine is great as Walter’s admiring and supportive mother, as is Patton Oswalt who plays a phone operator at an internet dating site trying to help Walter flesh out his profile in an effort to attract more interest in the film’s primary running gag. Sean Penn only appears in one scene as the elusive Sean O’Connell but he owns that scene and reminds us of his ability as a comic performer.
A far cry from the raucous comedies usually associated with Stiller and his Frat-Pack peers, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a whimsical, charming and above all tender film, and while it ventures into the overly sentimental it is so earnest that it is hard to begrudge it that.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean