Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a day-dreamer; he often floats away on flights of fancy about his crush Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). When a negative belonging to photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) goes missing, Mitty finds himself on an adventure that takes him across the world, and out of his dreams.
I must confess, when I heard that another film was being based on James Thurber’s excellent story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I was less than impressed. Thurber’s story is one of a man who lives a life of adventure while his wife is at the hairdresser, a dream life that may or may not be the result of PTSD. Obviously, the screenplay was going to be adapted from the story, and perhaps made a little less dark, but the premise made the film sounds like it was going to a schmaltzy affair, with Stiller on his usual frenzied form. I could not have been more wrong.
As Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller leaves behind the manic characters we have seen him play of late, and drifts closer to the melancholy of Chas in The Royal Tenenbaums. Stiller captures the essence of a normal man who has always dreamed of something more, but a tragic event in his teenage years meant his dreams for his actual life had to be shelved, so he created a dream life for himself instead. Stiller is sweet and warm as Mitty, and as the heart of the film, immediately gets the audience on his side; who hasn’t dreamed of being a superhero, or growing old with their crush?
Kristen Wiig also leaves her more caricatured performances behind, and plays the role of a single mother. She is warm and gentle, but does not have a whole lot to do, other than provide motivation for Mitty, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Sean Penn plays as enigmatic a character as we are used to seeing, and hits the nail on the head in terms of mystery and charm. Katherine Hahn brings the kooky as Mitty’s sister, Adam Scott plays a horrible, condescending manager, shaking off his nice guy image from Parks and Recreation, and Patton Oswalt has a lovely cameo as a call centre worker. Shirley MacLaine has a lovely, warm role as Mitty’s mother, a woman who has accepted her son’s day-dreaming, but does not always like it.
Steve Conrad’s screenplay is filled with relatable people, and just a touch of magic, as Mitty finds himself in situations he never dreamed possible. The mystery wraps around the mundanity of Mitty’s life, and drags him on the adventure of a lifetime. There are plenty of comedic moments, played perfectly against Stiller’s direction. Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography is nothing short of stunning. Throughout the film, he juxtaposes the big with the small, the micro mission that Mitty goes on against the might of the entire planet, and our world has rarely looked so beautiful on screen. This underlines the voyage of discovery throughout the film, and reminds us that we really should travel more.
Stiller directs with a light touch, as we have seen from him before, making the film feel personal and intimate, while set against the backdrop of an entire planet. That said, there are also some fantasy moments that feel more like music videos than actual realisations, leaving the audience to imagine what is going on in Mitty’s mind. These sequences look great, but feel slightly emotionally manipulative – there are few things that impact the emotions in the same way as music – and look more like shots from a trailer than part of the actual movie. They’re great songs though!
In all, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a beautifully shot re-imagining of James Thurber’s story, that features some wonderful, understated performances from the cast. Mystery, romance and adventure abound here, playing into the idea of our lives that we had as children. The message is a strong one; remember your dreams. The day-dream sequences are not the only secret life that Mitty leads, and although there are touches of music video or musical about some of the scenes, it is hard to come away from the film feeling anything other than content, and more curious about the world outside our windows.