Ben Stiller plays the titular character in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a Life Magazine employee who spends much of his day “zoned out,” oblivious to the world around him while fantasizing about adventures and endeavors that he’s too afraid to chase after. Paralyzed by family responsibilities and the daily work grind, Walter finds solace in his day dreams, where he rescues dogs from burning buildings, pummels his overbearing boss in a cartoonish street fight, and woos the woman of his dreams, accounting staff member Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig).
However, when it is announced that Life Magazine will cease publication of physical issues, in a move to the online market, famed Life photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) sends in a final cover image that he claims will capture the “quintessence” of the iconic magazine. Unfortunately, Walter cannot find “Negative 25,” and with his job and the respect of Cheryl on the line, he is forced out into the world, away from his fantasies, to find O’Connell, track down the missing picture, and live-up to the Life Magazine motto: “To see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to, to draw closer, to see and be amazed.”
After James Thurber published his 1939 short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” the property has seen multiple adaptations – most notably a 1947 film (starring Danny Kaye) as well as a broadway show. Screenwriter Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness) updated the setting and storyline for the 2013 version, loosely incorporating Thurber’s core concept of a day dreaming protagonist along with elements of the 1947 film, to tell an all-new Walter Mitty story with a variety of modern references and story beats.
Stiller not only stars but also directs the film – which, coupled with some of the zanier fantasy moments, might lead moviegoers to assume that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is another one of the actor’s over-the-top comedy offerings (i.e. Zoolander or Tropic Thunder). Yet, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a surprisingly impactful and uplifting film experience on par with some of the year’s best indie offerings – one that is elevated further by the sharp eye of Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano).
Viewers who are expecting an adaptation of the short story or a remake of the earlier film production will find that this iteration of Walter Mitty is almost entirely new. As mentioned, Thurber’s clever premise remains the same, a man who escapes into fantasies to avoid taking risks in daily life, but Conrad has crafted his telling of the story, and any thematic overtures, around current cultural mainstays – such as dating websites and the transition of old media into the online space.
The original narrative touched on similar motifs of escapism and living, but with the Life Magazine backdrop (and subsequent search for a world-hopping photojournalist), Conrad and Stiller inject the setup with added layers that provide a smart reason for Mitty to get out of his head and actually step into the world. A few threads parrot tropes in prior journey of self-empowerment plots but, even when the story borders on familiar territory, the filmmakers still present plenty of moving parallels to the Life Magazine mantra itself, “To see Life; see the world.”
Previously, Stiller has proven himself as a solid drama performer in projects that went, for the most part, under the casual moviegoer radar (most recently in Greenberg). As a result, some viewers will be surprised to discover that playing a convincing and relatable everyman, rather than an over-the-top cartoon character, is fully within the actor’s repertoire. Stiller’s take on Walter Mitty isn’t going to win him an Academy Award nomination but there’s a subtlety and sincerity in his execution that is right at home with the film’s enjoyable balance of humor, philosophizing, and drama. It’s a convincing performance, one that Stiller should be proud to include in his filmography – and one that should keep audiences rooting for Walter throughout his transformative journey.
Wiig is also a success as Cheryl, stepping outside of her usual sketch-comedy wheelhouse to play a pragmatic single-mother – and the focus of Walter’s affections. Wiig and Stiller might not have the kind of pulse-pounding chemistry that viewers expect in modern movie romance, but her turn as Cheryl provides a sweet and fitting supporter in the primary plot – which is, first and foremost, about forcing Walter out of fantasy life and into a real adventure.
Adam Scott (along with his beard) is another highlight, portraying Life Magazine acquisition manager, Ted Hendricks. Hendricks is pulled into several of Walter’s fantasy scenes, including that aforementioned street brawl, meaning that Scott is a scene-stealer in both the real and fantasy world. Finally, rounding out the supporting cast is Sean Penn, Kathryn Hahn, and Shirley MacLaine who all enjoy key moments in the spotlight – and are welcome additions in the evolution of Walter Mitty.
Especially critical moviegoers will likely be able to pick out minor shortcomings in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, as the film can (at times) be held back by routine story beats and solid (but not phenomenal) performances. Yet, despite any setbacks, Stiller’s adaptation is an inspiring and beautifully shot character adventure – one that even manages to get a worthwhile message across without becoming too preachy. In a story about going into the unknown, Stiller succeeds at delivering a film that, as Walter’s online dating guru (played by Patton Oswalt) suggests, can be both “noteworthy and mentionable.”
If you’re still on the fence about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, check out the trailer below:
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty runs 114 minutes and is Rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence. Now playing in theaters.
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