The joke of Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an old one – far older than both the James Thurber short story that inspired it and the 1947 Danny Kaye-starring film of the same name – centering on a man so prone to daydreaming that he has ceased to live his life inside the “real world.” It’s hard to blame Walter (Stiller), however, because the real world hasn’t been especially kind to him for a long time. It hasn’t been particularly cruel, either, but Walter has long suppressed his dreams of something more (and of being someone more), and his more creative and individual instincts come out to play in the vivid (and overly effects-laden) daydreams that Walter periodically lapses into (so frequently, in fact, that those closest to him just refer to it as Walter “zoning out” and that’s all there is to it).
The regular life issues that Walter faces are hard enough – a dead dad, an aging mother (Shirley MacLaine), a wacky sister (Kathryn Hahn), a job in a changing industry, a hopeless crush on a clueless co-worker (Kristen Wiig, who isn’t given nearly enough to work with to make the romantic element of the film stick) – so it’s understandable that he would slip into fantasy when things get rough. But Walter’s real world issues eventually grow far too large to be contained inside his head, and suddenly Walter the pretend pioneer has to actually venture out into the world to make the life he wants.
A long-time employee of Life magazine, Walter has sorted the negatives of the magazine’s vast archive of new and old photographs for nearly two decades, and the news that the publication has been bought out and is set to go digital is not good for either him or the work he does. Adam Scott pops up early on to tap into his inner villain to give a (nefariously bearded) face to the film’s central bad guy, the manager in charge of “the transition.” That transition entails putting together a final issue of the magazine – complete with a cover by noted war photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), who has formed a close relationship with Walter (via phone and correspondence, apparently) over the years. Incidentally, Sean has recently shipped Walter a set of negatives, promising that the twenty-fifth one is his best ever, the culmination of his work, and clearly the only choice for a last great Life.
But Walter cannot find the negative.
Walter’s life may be rooted in daydreams, but once convinced that he must track down Sean for assistance in the matter, there’s scarce little resistance on his part (it’s also when the generally pleasing fantasy sequences all but disappear, sadly enough). A running gag throughout the film centers on Walter’s inability to complete his eHarmony profile because he doesn’t have much to brag about (there’s a “been there, done that” section that he can’t round out, because he hasn’t been anywhere or done much of anything). Constantly called by a strangely overenthusiastic eHarmony employee (Patton Oswalt), Walter is forced to continually chat about just how lackluster his life is, though when he makes the decision to wing off to Greenland, he does it with little hesitation. Still stranger is the fact that Walter is passed off as a persnickety penny-pincher, and a looming layoff at work doesn’t seem like the right conditions to book it across the world.
Steve Conrad’s script is riddled with such inconsistencies, even as it makes room for all these seemingly key details (Walter’s dwindling bank account, the financial strain of moving his mother to a home, his tendency to daydream that his life is better). But Stiller’s strong performance and an unabashed dedication to an earnest tone push the film forward, eventually resulting in a very satisfying (and beautifully lensed, thanks to some nifty travel locations) second act. The middle of the film coalesces in a way that the rest of the production can’t (at least with Conrad’s thinly written script weighing everything down), joining performance, tone, and some very funny writing (finally!) together in a pleasurable and amusing way.
It’s clearly what the entire film is aiming for – something that’s whimsical but not overbearing, shaded with fairy tale colors without devolving into the cheesy. But it’s a balance the rest of the film cannot match, unable to walk the line between what is “whimsical” versus what is simply “improbable.” What the film does have to offer is obvious passion, zest, and that full-faced earnestness, so often charming enough to forgive the film’s obvious bid to read as “feel-good” and “life-affirming.” It is those things, on occasion and in some certain measure, and that Stiller is so often close to something profound and filling that make the film’s aims alone worthy of praise. The final product may not live up to its own daydreams, but it’s diverting enough to drift of into for an hour (or two).
The Upside: Ben Stiller gives an impassioned, funny, sweet, and strange performance as Walter; smaller supporting turns by Patton Oswalt and Sean Penn are a lovely surprise; solid soundtrack; a wonderfully cohesive middle act.
The Downside: Kristen Wiig isn’t given much to do in her role as Cheryl, the Walter and Cheryl romance never quite takes hold, the script is very often weak and unable to connect clearly important details.
On the Side: You can read Thurber’s original story here.