Walter Mitty is a man, and that’s really about it. He is a person who doesn’t so much defy description as fail to invite it; someone who fades into the background even when he’s alone. He works in the picture department of Life magazine, a once mighty publication that is now closing due to changing markets and passionless moneymen who can’t think outside a spreadsheet. There he fiddles about with negatives and goes unnoticed, even by the one person he’d care to pay attention, newly single accounts worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). But all that is just the outside. Inside Walter is a world of adventure and amazement. In his daydreams he’s the hero who leaps into a burning building to rescue a helpless dog; the brave mountaineer who marches to claim the girl; a warrior who battles bad guys on skyscrapers. Though all anyone else sees is a fortysomething man, staring into nothing. This is the story of turning his inside out.
This version of Walter Mitty is, like the 1947 Danny Kaye film, an adaptation of James Thurber’s 1939 short story, in so far as any feature-length movie can be an adaptation of a story with fewer than 2,000 words. Both take the premise of a man who escapes his own drabness with flights of fancy, and the fact someone else had the original idea should steal no credit from screenwriter Steve Conrad, who has built a plot on a single brick from Thurber. Thurber’s version of Mitty, who has settled for moments of daydreaming in a mundane life, is just the first 20 minutes. The rest, in which Mitty decides daydreaming is not enough, is all invented, and very well.
Mitty is a huge step for Ben Stiller as director. Playing the title character he is quiet and touching, devoid of his signature fits of anger, but he’s always been a talented actor. Compared to the other men who were, at various times, in the waiting room to play the title character — Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Will Ferrell, Sacha Baron Cohen — Stiller is more naturally low-key, less of a show-off. It’s tough to imagine Baron Cohen or Myers doing the underplaying necessary for someone who’s the straight man in every encounter. Fine as he is in front of the camera, Stiller’s never been nearly this impressive behind it. His previous films, particularly the last three — The Cable Guy, Zoolander, Tropic Thunder — have a confident, if sometimes indulgent, comic structure and a large amount of cynicism. They would laugh at things — at the vacuous fashion industry or the self-important film industry — which is a fruitful position for comedy, because it risks very little, but here he’s sincere. Sincerity is difficult in modern cinema. If a single speck of falseness is evident then all deflates into schmaltz, and if you’re sincere without a hint of humour, everyone will go home bored and lectured. The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is funny but not a comedy. Its laughs mostly come from the oddness of situations rather than jokes. Stiller clearly wants his audience to leave thinking and lifted, but not hectored. He’s striving for inspirational, and if you miss that by the smallest margin then you’re left looking hokey. You want to be a Jimmy Stewart movie, not a Robin Williams movie.
The reason it works is because Stiller keeps his eye on what Walter is after. The journey is huge but the goal is small; it won’t change the world, just his own. Walter’s path to a more interesting life begins when he sets himself a quest to track down a negative, sent to him by a reclusive photographer (Sean Penn, with a macho twinkle and magnificent hair) as “the quintessence of Life” and the perfect image for the magazine’s final cover. It’s lost before it even arrives. As the voyage grows, the play with fantasy changes. Early on, Walter’s daydreams will literally crash through into reality, such as in the beautiful moment when he, as a mountain climber, cracks through an office wall to romance Cheryl. But as the story develops and Walter begins an expedition to Greenland the fantasy becomes less heightened, until Walter’s own life becomes magic enough. The melding of imagined and real is done gently, without recourse to any ‘maybe it’s all in his head’ copping out. Stiller is, evidently, at heart just a big romantic.
There are times that he appears nervous about his ability to carry off a Big Film and he scuttles to comfortable ground, falling back on a cheap laugh. A Benjamin Button sequence could have come straight out of Tropic Thunder and its goofiness, while funny, sits clumsily. But Stiller has it. He’s up to the task. This is an intense workout for a director. There are action sequences (in the air, in the water and involving superpowers), there is romantic comedy, there is a touch of The Apartment-style corporate drama, there is a volcanic explosion and a bit with a shark. There’s a brilliant shot telling the history of a magazine with just a dash down a hall (it must be said that Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography is wondrous throughout), and some ingenious use of text. It’s all very ‘look what I can do, Ma’, but comes off not as showing off so much as having fun playing. It would be no surprise if he now finds himself on the director shortlist for just about any big project looking for a steady hand.
Necessarily, though, it is not just a series of set-pieces; Stiller’s found a grasp on emotion he hasn’t shown before and a view on the world (a bit exasperated at the generation that photographs everything but looks at nothing). The most striking scene in the film is just two men, sitting on a ledge, watching the world and letting a moment disappear. The whimsy, gorgeous as it is, is all bonded together by the simplicity of a man who for all the wonders he sees, both inside and outside his own head, is just looking for a bit of reality that is his.