Ben Stiller frustrates a lot of critics simply because we know how good he can be, even when he isn’t. As an actor, he’s perfectly happy to sign on for questionable projects that generally lower the IQ of everyone involved. Then he can turn around and deliver something smart, insightful and even quietly exceptional. It’s no surprise that his best efforts are those that he directs and/or writes as well as starring. The man saves his gunpowder for the projects worth doing; the others presumably give him the clout to push them when the time comes.
To the list of his triumphs, you can add The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which began life as a short story by James Thurber and was turned into a 1947 movie starring Danny Kaye. Stiller’s version resembles the older movie more than the book, but he has his own ideas about what to do with the scenario. The earlier efforts showed a daydreamer leading a quiet life, who fantasizes as a way to escape the hum-drum circumstances surrounding him. Here, Stiller focuses on the notion of lost opportunity, and how stepping outside your comfort zone can expand your understanding of how life works. It helps his film stand apart, as well as adding a lovely tone that fits the material quite well.
Kaye’s Walter Mitty worked for a pulp magazine, and pulled his fantasies from the stories he was editing. Stiller’s Mitty toils in the bowels of Life Magazine, scanning negatives for storage and helping the editorial staff find the shots they need. That puts him on the outs with the new management, led by Adam Scott’s obsequious frat-boy who has no use for Stiller’s passivity. That same passivity prevents him from connecting with his pretty coworker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), though judging by his overdeveloped fantasy life, he clearly wants to.
It’s a nice fit: a man who experiences extraordinary things only through the pictures he sorts in a dusty basement, while the wonders of life around him pass on by. That changes when he loses track of a vital negative – slated for the cover of the last issue – and needs to hunt down the photographer who took it (Sean Penn). Suddenly, he’s off to all those places he once only dreamed about, and in the process discovers part of his soul that he thought he’d lost.
The arc has been done, to be sure, but Stiller handles it with such elegance that it’s hard to care. He makes a good fit for the character onscreen – all well-meaning pratfalls and stammering insecurities – and understands the line between dreaming and doing that the story requires. Early critics have lambasted his overly-polished approach, but as a character study, Walter Mitty finds the right amounts of authenticity at precisely the correct moments.
The film’s copious special effects, accompanied by some gorgeous on-location shots of Mitty’s various far-flung destinations, lend further credence to the “overly polished” complaint. But their gorgeous facades don’t cover up a lack of interesting ideas. Instead, they further bolster the central notion of finding yourself amid the world, while juicing up the slow pacing without deterring from the quiet tone Stiller has worked so hard to create.
It works in large part due to that technical skill, granting Walter Mitty a sense of sweetness and absurdity that helps it thrive. Thurber’s satirical tone is nowhere to be seen, but it isn’t missed. Stiller isn’t trying to recreate the short story but rather tell one of his own. Within the parameters he sets for himself, the film soars: funny at the right moments, deeply sympathetic to its main character, and carrying some subtle wisdom about the ways we impose our own limitations. In a season full of crass Oscar bait and business-as-usual genre fare, Stiller shows us how you can still find something interesting to say in seemingly very ordinary ways. In that sense Walter Mitty fits its subject perfectly: a slight, romantic fairy tale that succeeds simply by doing everything right.