Apparently Ben Stiller has been trying to get The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to the screen for the best part of two decades. Something you notice as it unfolds, at least in terms of slightly odd events taking place. But then, the film is slightly odd. And I mean that in a good way. As Winona Ryder’s Lydia says in Beetlejuice, ‘Live people tend to ignore the strange and unusual, but then I myself am strange and unusual.’ Same could be said for Stiller, he does odd well.
Here he directs – and stars – in this film, based on a 1939 short story by James Thurber and last brought to screen in 1947 with Danny Kaye in the title role. In terms of the plot of this updated version, it’s a little hard to describe. Wikipedia gives it a go, calling it a ‘romantic adventure fantasy comedy drama’. You can imagine the studio having a meeting; ‘We didn’t leave any genres out did we? No? Good.’ I’m not complaining, it’s just a funny film to put in a box.
Essentially the story follows Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), a negative assets manager (processor of photos) who works for Life magazine. Walter is a dreamer and more than most people, often zoning out of real life to imagine some fantastical adventure with the object of his affection, co-worker Cheryl (played with a real sweetness by Kristin Wiig). Life as a print publication – in the way of the modern world – is being phased out to become an online service. For the final issue, legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (enigmatically played by Sean Penn) sends Walter a negative to use for the final cover. Walter cannot find it and sets off on a journey to hunt Sean down to locate the photo – one which leads him on a path of self-discovery through Iceland, Greenland and the upper Himalayas of Afghanistan.
Phew! Epic right? No wonder it took Stiller so long to fully realise his vision. And realise it he does for this is a proper life-affirming film. I often cringe hearing that phrase but I think here it’s justified. In the first third when Stiller is setting up the plot, he gives Walter’s daydreams a real dollop of overblown Hollywood comedy cheese – classic Stiller you might say.
As the story progresses and Walter begins living life instead of just imagining it, his adventures – whilst fantastical – are very much real and the whiff of cheese and melodrama has completely vanished. Indeed, in its place are scenes of real beauty; the sequences in Iceland and other places are lovingly shot and quite breathtaking.
In terms of the film’s tone, it’s interesting. With the offbeat characters Walter meets and its quirky ‘journey of self-discovery’ aesthetic, you wonder what this would have been like in the hands of directors like Wes Anderson or Alexander Payne? That said, let’s take nothing away from Stiller as a director – and indeed Stuart Dryburgh as cinematographer – this is shot in an assured, mature and majestic manner.
There are perhaps one or two too many lingering shots on Stiller’s face; looking progressively more rugged and handsome as he has more adventures, but that’s to be expected if you direct and star in your own movie I suppose. That aside, he largely convinces as buttoned-down Walter, learning to spread his wings, love life and take risks.
Ultimately, Walter Mitty is an upbeat, touching and tender tale, filled with genuine laughs that should leave you with a burning desire to locate your passport and live life to the fullest. It also – quite possibly – represents a new and exciting chapter in Stiller’s career – one worth watching with interest.