Synopsis: A day-dreamer escapes his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of fantasies filled with heroism, romance and action. When his job along with that of his co-worker are threatened, he takes action in the real world embarking on a global journey that turns into an adventure more extraordinary than anything he could have ever imagined.
Most modern audiences who go to see Walter Mitty will likely be less aware of the source material from which Ben Stiller’s version derives, than they will of the use of his surname as pop shorthand for a lugubrious daydreamer. One who retreats to a land of fantasy when the reality of the world around them becomes to much to bear. A land where they are king and Lady Luck bends to their whims and desires.
As someone who only had the briefest of knowledge of the story of Walter Mitty, I left wishing I had done more homework before I went in. Which is in itself as much a criticism of Stiller’s muddied storytelling and pacing issues as it is my inability to properly research the subject. A well told story shouldn’t require you to know anymore than you’re presented with, either implicitly or explicitly, in order to follow the narrative. Developing and expanding upon the 1937 source material, Stiller’s take on Walter Mitty places his melancholic protagonist as a photo-developer at a landmark New York magazine (basically Time) which is being bought out and shut down. His unrequited affections for his co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) and the loss of a special photograph negative from legendary photojournalist Sean O’Connell eventually sends him on an unbelievable journey across the globe. What starts as a journey to find a photo quickly becomes a journey of self discovery. Mitty is, essentially, another incarnation of The Tin Man from Oz, wishing for a heart only to find it to be within him all along.
Stiller spends the first 30 minutes developing his dysphoric hero through a series of ever increasingly spectacular set pieces until such time where Mitty must then embark on his fantastical journey. The issue being that as his journey begins you never know whether what you are watching is fantasy or reality, this being especially problematic as Stiller asks his audience to suspend their disbelief more and more as this once meek man jumps from helicopters, skateboards down mountains and traverses the Himalayas.
The surrealism of his journey ultimately casts too great a shadow, and so I found myself spending so much time second guessing where the film was going that it stopped me from getting fully absorbed in what is actually an incredibly sweet and heartfelt story. Stiller also shows a keen eye for using his surroundings to reflect the city sized imagination of his emotionally diminutive Mitty, with buildings, billboards and mountains used as his canvas. When the action moves to Iceland and The Himalayas Stiller proves himself more than capable of creating moments of glorious, sweeping action backed by a solid indie soundtrack. All of it though was overshadowed by the uncertainty of where Stiller was taking us.
All of that aside it is undoubtedly the role that Stiller should be playing at this stage in his career to remove himself from the Wilson, Wilson and Vaughan fratpack comedies that have become so stale in recent years. There is an inherent quiet in great comic actors that make them perfect for melancholic leading men. Will Ferrell’s beautifully underplayed performance in Stranger Than Fiction is another fine example. And here Stiller allows Mitty’s insecurities and frailties to eek out rather than crash all over the screen. Kirsten Wiig is equally as cautious with her role as his muse and inspiration, matching his hesitancy for pursuing what she wants.
Having let it percolate I think The Secret Life of Walter Mitty will benefit greatly from a second viewing, where I can allow myself to be absorbed into the characters rather than concerning myself with where they are going.
Conclusion: A film as gentle as a summers breeze and about as memorable. Stiller should have been more disciplined with his pacing at times and gone with a less outlandish last 30 minutes. All of that aside though there is a sweet emotional core that will warm your soul on a cold winter night.
Cast: Ben Stiller, Kirsten Wiig, Sean Penn, Patton Oswalt, Adam Scott