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.