D: Ben Stiller / 114m
Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Shirley MacLaine, Kathryn Hahn, Adrian Martinez, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Patton Oswalt, Sean Penn
Working as a negative accounts manager (responsible for photo negatives sent in by contributing photographers) at Life magazine, Walter Mitty (Stiller) has led a largely unremarkable life. Unmarried, with few friends, Walter is devoted to his job, but with the recent arrival of Cheryl Melhoff (Wiig) at the magazine, he finds himself smitten. Upheaval also arrives with the news that the magazine is being cancelled in favour of an online edition. Brought in to oversee the closure of the magazine and staff lay-offs, Ted Hendricks (Scott) picks on Walter, having caught him day-dreaming in the office. When noted photographer Sean O’Connell (Penn) sends in a series of negatives, with one being his preferred choice for the final cover, Walter is horrified to discover he can’t find it. With the final issue a matter of two weeks away, Walter decides to track down O’Connell and retrieve the missing negative.
Walter enlists Cheryl’s help in finding the elusive O’Connell. A clue leads Walter to Iceland, where a drunken helicopter pilot (Ólafsson) tells him O’Connell is heading via trawler to Greenland. He catches up with the trawler at sea but O’Connell has already left the ship. Arriving in Greenland, Walter learns that his quarry is headed for a local airstrip. As he gets there, O’Connell’s plane takes off… and a nearby volcano erupts. With no further leads to help him follow O’Connell, Walter is forced to return to New York. Back at work, he’s fired by Hendricks. Depressed, Walter visits his mother (MacLaine) who tells him O’Connell came to see her a few weeks before. She also provides him with enough information to help Walter decipher another clue he’s picked up during his travels. Travelling to the foothills of the Himalayas, Walter finally catches up with O’Connell and the mystery of the missing negative is solved.
From its trailer, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty could be mistaken for another comic fantasy à la Stiller’s Night at the Museum movies, but thanks to a sharply observed script by Steve Conrad, and a sure hand at the helm from Stiller himself, nothing could be further from the truth. This is not just an excuse for humorous fantasy sequences designed to prop up a patchy script, but a carefully thought out, intelligent, affectionate account of one man’s emergence from his own shell. Walter is a terrific creation, a recognisable person with recognisable hopes and dreams, and a genuinely nice man who’s self-confidence is only evident when he’s at work. His attraction to Cheryl is handled beautifully, his longing for a relationship played with adroitness and charm. And as Walter’s adventures bring him further into the real world, and away from the fantasy world he slips into so easily, the acceptance he finds from the people he meets brings him a series of personal rewards. By the time he confronts O’Connell, Walter is a changed man, able to deal with anything Life can throw at him (and which comes in handy when he later confronts Hendricks).
It’s a wonderful, nuanced turn from Stiller, subtle, skilful and affecting in equal measure, and a joy to watch. It’s a life-affirming performance, ably supported by a well-chosen supporting cast headed by Wiig, and Stiller proves a confident director, marshalling the disparate elements of the script with verve and evident ease. Penn is a great choice for the errant photographer, and Wiig adds several shades to a character she has played similar versions of before. The only false note amongst the performances is Scott’s but that’s because his character is written as an obnoxious prat from the beginning; it’s the script’s only misstep.
The movie is often gorgeous to look at as well, especially when Walter is trekking through the foothills of the Himalayas; as he walks along the top of one particular ridge the panorama behind him is simply breathtaking. But even amongst the offices of Life magazine, Stiller’s compositions are pleasing to the eye and far from perfunctory, a testament to the effort he’s made in presenting a movie that has a unique visual style throughout. He’s ably supported by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh and editor Greg Hayden, and there’s a wonderful score replete with songs courtesy of José González.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is that modern rarity amongst Hollywood movies, an uplifting, feel good, life-affirming romantic drama that isn’t queasily sentimental or emotionally over-the-top, and which doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s worth watching a second time for the subtle bits of business Stiller peppers the movie with, and for the pleasure of spending the best part of two hours with someone you’d be happy to call your friend.
Rating: 9/10 – a triumph for Stiller and his very talented cast and crew, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty deserves to be seen over and over again; a winning, multi-faceted experience that will keep a smile on your face for hours after seeing it.