Entertainment

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty

by Kevin Taft
Contributor
Friday Dec 27, 2013
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Ben Stiller stars in ’The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’
Ben Stiller stars in ’The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’  (Source:20th Century Fox)

Ben Stiller’s latest directorial (and acting) effort is also his best. Based on the short story by James Thurber (but not the Danny Kaye film which was also based on the book), "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a gentle, reflective, and inspirational tale about a man who feels invisible and goes on an adventure that brings him back to life.

"Life" is a key component in "Walter Mitty", because it is also at the iconic magazine that Walter Mitty himself (played by Stiller) works. A Negative Assets Manager, he is responsible for all of the photographs sent in by the magazine’s prolific photographers. When the magazine announces they will only have one more physical issue before moving to a web-only format, they want the last issue to be special. So they look to their favorite long-time photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), for their last cover. He has just sent a roll of film in and offers that photo 25 is the best one. The douchebag responsible for changing over the staff for Life’s new venture is Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), a prick of a man who bullies Walter from the moment he meets him. He becomes obsessed with picture 25 and wants Walter to hand it over. But, alas, photo 25 is missing from the negative roll and Walter is blamed.

During all of this Walter is desperately trying to date via eHarmony, where a failed attempt at "winking" at a co-worker he found on the site causes him to call up their customer service line. There, he develops a strange friendship with a rep named Todd (Patton Oswalt), who tries to build him a better profile. You see, Walter has never done anything of significance or been anywhere exotic. The one unusual thing about him is that he frequently "zones out" and enters a fantasy world where he becomes a romantic action hero, with talent and charisma to spare. This is his quirk, and it causes him a lot of unneeded stress. But it also becomes one of his greatest motivations.

When he coincidentally runs into the co-worker he likes, one Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), she tries to help him find out where Sean O’Connell is. But Sean is a reclusive world traveler, so the only evidence of where he might be is in the photographs he has left behind. On her convincing, Walter chooses to go find Sean, get photo 25, and bring it back to Life’s office. It is that journey that will change his outlook and his future forever.

Written by Steve Conrad ("The Pursuit of Happiness"), there are many pleasures in Stiller’s adaptation, not the least of which is that it prefers to be a tender work rather than a rollicking big-budget comedy. While the budget is clearly huge, and there are moments of bombastic whimsy, this is an esoteric look at one man’s return to life after having avoided it for so long. It’s one of those films that is funny without the need to be "laugh-out-loud" uproarious. It’s the type of film that puts a smile on your face, and makes you think about all the wonderful experiences you want to have in life.

Stiller has never been better. And while his performances in films like "Reality Bites" and "Permanent Midnight" foreshadow his ability to play realistic characters (as opposed to buffoons like "Zoolander"), here he is quietly subdued, heartbreaking, and charming. We care for this man almost instantly and he never goes through an overdramatic obvious change. The change is there; it’s visible as the day-old scruff on his face. But it’s also something that simply emanates from him, rather than being painted on for evident effect. Similarly, Wiig tones down the wackiness she is most known for, and gives a lovingly temperate performance that complements Stiller’s.

Credit must go to the studio for allowing Stiller to make a more artistic version of this story, when it so easily could have been a sophomoric, over-the-top crowd-pleaser. But Stiller is not the only master at work here. The cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh ("The Piano") shoots the film magnificently, whether in showing the noisy streets of New York City or the expansive landscape of Iceland. This is a beautiful film that allows for quiet reflective moments amidst the occasional burst of special effects and adventure. A sequence of Stiller skateboarding through the Icelandic countryside sidesteps the humor of the situation, and revels in the joy of being that free in such a beautiful place, especially at Walter’s age. Additionally, the score by Theodore Shapiro -- who previously worked with Stiller on "Tropic Thunder" -- is fanciful, adventurous, and beautiful in equal measure.

This is one of the more wonderful surprises of the year. It’s a crowd-pleaser for those that don’t need to be smacked in the head with the fact that it is one. This is a heartwarming, inspirational, and moving look at one man’s search for his life when he didn’t even realize he had lost it. They say it’s all about the journey; and what a journey this is.

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to ’Star Wars’ and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg. He can be seen in the flesh on the weekly PBS movie review series "Just Seen It."

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