There are two kinds of people in the world: people that daydream at work, and people that lie about not daydreaming at work. Physically, you may be sitting in an office writing movie reviews. But mentally, you’re a thousand miles away, pretending that Nick Fury just busted through the door of your mansion and asked you to join the Avengers. There’s no shame in it, as long as it doesn’t start affecting your ability to function in the real world. That’s a problem that seems to affect Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller).
Walter doesn’t lead a very exciting life. His apartment reflects his humdrum existence, almost entirely devoid of color except for the corn flakes in his cereal bowl. Almost as empty is his eHarmony account, which he created specifically to try and communicate with the new girl at work, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). Every time he tries to talk to her in person, he gets lost in his own mind playing out a fantastic scenario. While he chats with an eHarmony consultant on the phone, he drifts away and imagines himself saving Cheryl’s three-legged dog from an exploding building. He also builds the dog a prosthetic leg, just for good measure. Of course it’s all in his head, and all he accomplishes is to miss his train.
Walter works as a negative assets manager at LIFE Magazine, meaning he handles and develops all the incoming photographs. Appropriate, considering his tendency towards immersing himself in other worlds. The pictures allow Walter to enjoy a somewhat surrogate life, mostly through his favorite shutterbug, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). But in an increasingly digital age, there aren’t many negatives for Walter to manage anymore. LIFE is transitioning to an entirely online presence, which means his days at the company are numbered. Antagonizing the daydreaming Walter is the Managing Director in Charge of The Transition, Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott). Sporting an ill-advised beard, the compassionless Ted teases Walter at every turn. Walter always comes up with a snappy comeback for the bearded jerk, but only ever says it in one of his fantasies.
When O’Connell sends his last roll of film to LIFE, he supplies a note thanking Walter for his efforts over the years. He says he trusts only him to develop the greatest picture he’s ever taken, which he’s dubbed “the quintessence of life”. The only problem is, Walter can’t find it. Even after turning the film room upside down, there is no sign of the fabled photograph. With the last issue of LIFE set to print in just two weeks, Walter resolves to track the globetrotting Sean down and retrieve the lost negative. The ensuing adventure rivals even the most extreme of Walter’s daydreams, making his eHarmony account a lot more appealing.
Based on the short story by James Thurber, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is its own entity, wholly original from the written work and the 1947 film of the same name. Ben Stiller was initially only meant to star as the escapist Walter Mitty, but brought such passion to his initial meetings with producers John and Samuel Goldwyn that they offered him the directing chair. The decision was wise, as Stiller turns The Secret Life of Walter Mitty into one of the most uplifting movies of the year. It’s nothing too groundbreaking, but it’s all extremely enjoyable.
With a cast featuring Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, and Shirley MacLaine, you’d think that the film would be a gut-busting comedy. But that’s not the intention of Steven Conrad’s balanced screenplay. There is a good deal of humor that works here, but this is not a comedy first-and-foremost. It’s actually hard to place this into any one genre. This is a comedic-romantic-fantasy-adventure, and succeeds well in all facets. It can be argued that this non-commitment prevents the movie from maintaining a consistent tone. But that falls apart when you realize how smooth and easy-going the entire film is, once it overcomes some bumps in the first act.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a celebration of life, and begs us to leave our dreamland and start branching out into the world. The wonders that this planet has to offer are there for the taking, and while you won’t become a superhero any time soon, you can still accomplish some really special stuff. Sure, the film is incredibly Hollywood-ized, so it’s larger-than-life even for a movie that advocates the real world over fantasy. But that doesn’t change its message, beautifully conveyed by the friendly characters and gorgeous cinematography. Don’t let an idealized fiction prevent you from enjoying the fact. It’s not a new theme, but it’s executed really well.
My Rating: (8/10)