Part of what differentiates us from other species is our ability…no, our need for imagination and dreaming. Each and every human, no matter what age, sex or culture uses our imagination to escape from our daily lives to a place in our imagination even if only for a short time. Most of us do it, but not nearly as much, as creatively or well as Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller – Zoolander, Tropic Thunder).
In his day job working in the stills archives of Life magazine seems to be his entire life. We learn of no friends or hobbies other than his knack for daydreaming. Anytime his life gets boring or he wishes he could have acted differently Walter escapes into his vivid imagination to spice things up.
His whole life seems to come crashing down around him when he is informed by co-workers that Life has been sold and then told by the pompous, but empty headed Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott – from television’s Parks and Recreation) that the next issue will be the last print version of Life as it will be only available online from now on. This means there will be some serious downsizing and every job will as a result be evaluated. To make matters worse, Walter’s department has misplaced the negative from famous photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn – Dead Man Walking, Mystic River) that is slated to be the cover of the final issue.
O’Connell is not a man who stays in one place for very long and as result is very hard to track down. This leads to the ever fearful and timid Walter Mitty, prodded on by the new girl at work, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig – Bridesmaids, Paul), to go out into the world (a thing he has never done) to follow the clues in order to find O’Connell. The ensuing adventure leads him across the globe to such places as Iceland and Afghanistan.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a short story by James Thurber written in 1939. So well written a story about a man who escaped his life through daydreaming that it is considered to be a classic of American literature of that era. It was first adapted into a film in 1947 by director Norman Z. MacLeod and starred Danny Kaye in the title role. Ben Stiller’s version, written by Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness, The Weather Man), is quite different from both of these previous works. He brings his own zaniness and sweetness to the film. While he is not an awful director, Stiller is definitely a stronger actor than director.
One of the rare problems with the film is its occasional pacing and identity missteps. Ben Stiller is trying out the rep film angle here in that it does make dry observations about life. A mistake is made every time Stiller tries to pair the observational humour with some of his more typical slapstick comedy. It doesn’t mesh and pulls the viewer out of the moment and feeling he has built. Thankfully this does not happen too often. Acting he makes plenty of right moves. He has instilled plenty of heart into Walter, so much so that the character totally captures you and you cheer for him to succeed.
As an adult this is a film that will speak to you. The idea of having the courage to go where you could have only previously imagined is heartwarming and encouraging. When you have come to live a certain number of years you do inevitably question some of the decisions you have made. We all wonder how things would have turned out if we only would have made different decisions. Everyone’s mind does wander…as does the film occasionally and maybe a surer handed or experienced director would have reined things in a little more, but it is also this sweetness and whimsy which makes the film so likeable. Life affirming and about the beauty of being able to change your life at any point, no matter your age, is part of the sweetness of it.
It is not often that with a film of this sorts I strong recommend that people see it in the theatre on the large screen. But such is the case with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I think the big screens in theatres is the format that does the high quality cinematography of this Ben Stiller (Reality Bites, The Cable Guy) directed film. He certainly goes over and above what most directors of comedy films go for in the visuals department. Everything is so crisp and clear that it really adds a depth to the film, especially the daydreaming parts. The visuals from the time he is Iceland are worth the price of admission alone. Who knew that country was so beautiful in a rough and desolate kind of way. The attention to detail and the beauty of the photography of the film is done in a Life magazine type way.