Ben Stiller’s adaptation of James Thurber’s short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, in which he also stars as the title character, is a curious film. It’s trapped somewhere between big and small, and ends up as a moderately sized and moderately successful picture.
Stiller stars as Walter – a guy whose life has stalled. He works at Life magazine, and is good at his job, but he’s emotionally isolated and finds himself, along with the rest of his colleagues, threatened with redundancy when the company is taken over by a corporation of beardy creeps headed up by Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott, in an amusing and sufficiently irritating support role). Also in line for the sack is Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), who only recently joined the company, and who, like Walter, is unsuccessfully trying her hand at online dating.
Walter’s defining characteristic is his habit of drifting off into daydreams, which in the film play out as fantasy sequences. The idea of Walter fading out of life into fantasy is a strong one – it’s something that most audiences will be able to empathise with – but his fantasies aren’t brought to life particularly successfully. An imagined fight scene between Walter and his boss is funny in theory, but in practice feels like a poor excuse for some special effects-driven action that the film really doesn’t need. There are a few occasions like this, where the film feels like it’s overstretched itself a bit and would’ve been more successful as a smaller production. It’s indie-spirited at heart, after all.
What the fantasies do provide, at least, is a series of amusing gags when Walter comes back to reality. In fact the film has quite a few laughs in it (credit goes to Ólafur Darri Ólafsson for his drunk helicopter pilot), and Stiller portrays Walter’s life affirming quest for a lost photo with just the right mix of stiffness and comic timing. The picture as a whole can’t quite achieve the same balance, and there are a few too many ‘inspirational’ montages that are less uplifting that the film imagines them to be, accompanied as they are by Theodore Shapiro’s at times lovely score.
Stiller infuses the film with some nice visual quirks, particularly at the start, artfully layering scenes over one other. It’s not much more than window dressing, but it helps establish a sense of visual identity. His film is at its best, though, when it doesn’t aim for the heights – particularly in the conversations between Walter and Kristen Wiig’s thoroughly charming Cheryl.
This flight of fancy doesn’t quite offer the feel good lift it seems to be aiming for, perhaps because its structure dictates that Walter spends too much time alone, but that’s not to criticise Stiller’s film too harshly. He is good in the lead role, and the supporting cast add laughs and heart where they’re needed. There’s also an unexpectedly touching payof f towards the end, which nicely underscores the idea that wherever we’re looking, and whatever we’re looking for, we are still just as likely to miss the things that matter most.