By Melissa Agar
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (20th Century Fox/Samuel Goldwyn, 2013) – Director: Ben Stiller. Writers: Steve Conrad (s/p), James Thurber (short story). Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Jon Daly, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn, Terence Bernie Hines, Adam Scott, Paul Fitzgerald, & Grace Rex. Color, 114 minutes.
I’ve always had kind of a love-hate relationship with Ben Stiller. I was one of the few people who religiously tuned into his groundbreaking sketch comedy show in the early 1990s and still find myself quoting sketches from it. I still think Winona Ryder made a huge mistake choosing Ethan Hawke over Ben Stiller in Reality Bites, Stiller’s feature directing debut. I guess the “hate” part of our relationship has developed more recently as Stiller has made sillier and sillier choices in his career. I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive him for the hundred or so minutes I lost watching The Watch, and the Fockers movies still make me shudder with rage. It’s always kind of mystified and frustrated me that someone who has proven himself capable of creating smart, inventive comedy could be satisfied with cranking out Fockers and Night at the Museum sequels ad nauseum rather than challenging himself and leaving a richer comedic legacy. And then I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and all is (for now) forgiven.
Based on the delightful short story by James Thurber, Walter Mitty stars Stiller as the titular character, a sad sack who frequently gets lost in elaborate daydreams. In his dreams, Walter is a heroic titan, unafraid of anything – whether it’s telling off his jerk of a boss or winning the girl of his dreams. Dream Walter saves puppies from explosions and surfs down the street on broken pavement.
Real Walter is a shy employee of Life magazine, working in the negatives department to print the adventures of other people while yearning for adventures of his own. When the magazine is acquired and transition manager Ted Hendricks (Scott) announces that the next issue will be the last printed issue, the decision is made to use a shot from a recent roll sent in by renowned photographer Scott O’Connell (Penn), a shot that O’Connell tells them is the “quintessence of Life” but a shot which appears to be missing when Walter goes to print it. The disappearance of the shot sends Walter on a real adventure, urged on by his office crush Cheryl (Wiig). Suddenly, the guy who had nothing to put in his “Been there, done that” section on his eHarmony questionnaire is suddenly skateboarding through Iceland, jumping out of helicopters into the sea, dodging sharks, and playing soccer in the Himalayas. The observer of life is now living life.
It may kill any of my “indie film snob fan” cred to say this, but this is a truly superb film on so many levels. This is only the fifth film Stiller has directed, and he directs this film with a gentle touch with clear influence from indie directors like Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson. There is a unity at play in how the movie looks and feels. The life of the Real Walter is one lacking in color. Walter wears lots of white, black, and grey, even carrying a hard-sided silver briefcase.
The offices of Life are sterile outside of the giant magazine covers that decorate the walls. Once Walter begins his adventures, he is immersed in color, whether it’s the red sweater he wears after his ocean jump or just the color of the scenery around him. As Walter comes to life, the color palette of the film bursts to life. It is a subtle but beautiful touch. There is a gentleness to this film from Walter’s sweet, shy demeanor to the score. (There is a sequence set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that still gives me goosebumps to think about.) It’s a gentleness that draws the viewer in and wraps itself around the heart so that Walter’s triumphs become our own, and when we finally see the elusive picture, it is a moment of pure bliss because the quest to find it has been our quest as well as Walter’s. After all, what picture could possibly represent the quintessence of life?
It is easy to forget after watching him sort of sleepwalk his way through Focker movies and some of the other lighter weight fare that has dominated his career lately that deep down, Ben Stiller is a pretty skilled actor, but Walter Mitty brings it all back for us. When Stiller sheds the silliness and schtick that he often wallows in, he’s a quiet, subtle actor. There is a depth of desperation in his Walter’s eyes that breaks your heart.
With the possible exception of his role as Chas Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums, this is Stiller’s finest work onscreen. There is no mugging, no creepy voices, and outside of a fantasy sequence where he envisions himself as a Benjamin Button-type, no goofy makeup. It’s just Stiller and his beautifully expressive face. There are extended sequences with little to no dialogue for Walter, and Stiller carries it all beautifully. Let’s hope it’s the start of a new phase of Stiller’s career and that the days of junk like The Watch are behind him. (Sadly, Internet Movie Database reports that his upcoming projects include sequels to Night at the Museum and Zoolander, but my hope for him will remain.)
It’s easy to roll your eyes at a movie with a tag line reading “Stop dreaming; start living.” It’s easy to write this off to Stiller trying to “go serious” as so many other comedic actors have done with varying degrees of success. (I will admit that the film did remind me a great deal at times of Will Farrell’s fabulous Stranger than Fiction in many respects.) But once you set the cynicism aside, you’re left with a smart, funny film with a simple message – live your life. What better message to embrace as we start a new year?