The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a gentle, low-key comedy


Starring Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig. Rated G.

I’ve never cared for the work of Ben Stiller, so The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was a pleasant surprise. Stiller—who makes his directing debut as well as starring in the title role—takes care to ease back on his traditionally broad approach. You can feel his desire to create a gentle, low-key comedy that leaves a few moments of genuine value in its wake. Despite the occasional misstep—including some shameless product placement—he succeeds.

This is the second movie loosely based on the classic short story by James Thurber. Like the 1947 original with Danny Kaye, screenwriter Steve Conrad dispenses with the darker undertones of Thurber’s theme. (A henpecked husband indulges in compulsive fantasies of heroism to cope with an unhappy marriage.) What’s left besides the title? A mild-mannered nerd who daydreams to spice up an otherwise dreary life.

Stiller’s modern-day Walter is in charge of developing photo negatives for Life magazine. Aside from his secret crush on a co-worker (Kristen Wiig, trapped in a thankless role), Walter’s only glimmer of real-life excitement is the working relationship he has with a globetrotting photographer named Sean O’Connell (a perfectly cast Sean Penn).

Walter’s routine is upset when he learns that Life will be publishing its final print edition before restricting itself to online content. His last task for the old-school version of the venerable magazine? Develop the negative for O’Connell’s cover shot.

Simple enough, until Mitty can’t find the unseen negative. With his job on the line, Walter becomes determined to track down the elusive O’Connell and save the day. Along the way, his mundane life transforms into the kind of exotic fantasy he’s always dreamed of.

It’s ironic that the fantasy sequences—the selling point for the entire concept—tend to slow things down. Although Stiller shoots with a fine eye for detail, Walter’s dream life seems stale and unamusing. Thankfully, such moments taper off after the first half-hour or so. What ultimately emerges is a movie that’s more thoughtful—and far less silly—than you might expect.

Comments (5) Add New Comment
"who makes his directing debut"... What about the other 4 theatrical movies and numerous TV shows...
Rating: +5
Johnny Roselli
According to Wikipedia, Stiller made his "directing debut" (should be written as directorial debut) in Elvis Stories in 1989, some twenty five years ago.
Rating: +4
C'mon, John and the editors at the Straight, Stiller has directed a heap of mediocre films before this; Reality Bites, The Cable Guy, Zoolander, Tropic Thunder... You guys get paid to do this, right?
Rating: +3
Adrian Mack
This error made it past a few pairs of eyes, some belonging to people who consider Zoolander to be anything but mediocre. Mistakes happen. Sorry, gentle reader!
Rating: -8
out at night
Never mind Zoolander (great movie), Cable Guy is a masterpiece, exalted among the cringe genre.

Walter Mitty though...just okay. Nice, but not enough heft.
Rating: -7
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