The Secret Life of Walter Mitty review: Ben Stiller’s excellent adventure

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty green light Ben Stiller

A cheery, airy fairy tale filled with a very modern ache and buoyed by an infectious joy. I love this movie.
I’m “biast” (pro): like Stiller as a filmmaker; the trailer thrilled me

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The first thing I had to do after laughing through, weeping over, and reveling in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is grab two amazing songs off the soundtrack to listen to over and over again, to recapture the walking-on-air feeling the movie left me with. Those songs are “Step Out” by Swedish folk-pop singer José González and “Dirty Paws” by indie Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men. Everybody sings in English, and both songs are available on iTunes, and you need them, too, even if you’ve only heard these songs in the trailers for the film, buoying them with a sense of the fairy tale, but also with a very modern ache for something more than what reality is offering. As they do the film itself.

Oh my god, I love this movie. You know, in a way that makes me wanna cry over its bittersweetly pragmatic approach to dealing with that ache for something more.

Forget the James Thurber short story and the 1947 film of the same name. This bears little resemblance to either beyond the shared title (at least as far as I can tell from reading synopses of them). Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty is not an ineffectual, henpecked doofus. He’s been doing quite a responsible job extremely well for a decade and a half, as the photo manager for Life magazine, and apparently the only one able to deal with superstar Indiana Jones-esque photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn: Gangster Squad, Milk). But now a valuable O’Connell negative has gone missing, an image intended for the cover — yes, O’Connell still shoots on film — and Walter is pushed into what becomes the sort of adventure he often daydreams about.

The daydreaming we can all identify with: it’s Walter’s way of getting through the day, and don’t we all do that? There is wonderfully funny — even downright thrilling — stuff in Walter’s daydreams, ridiculously preposterous and quixotic stuff that captures the outrageous nonsense we love movies for (another way to escape from real life). The best of it is the fantasy superhero sequence in which Walter imagines himself battling his deeply assholic new boss (Adam Scott: Bachelorette, Leap Year) through the streets of midtown Manhattan; it’s everything the new Spider-man movie should have been, and how I’d love to see Stiller direct a comic-book movie. Oh yes, Stiller (Tower Heist, Little Fockers) isn’t just the star but the director of this lovely film, and as fantastic as the daydreamy sequences are, even better are the real adventures that gentle Walter has on his search for the missing negative. Walter’s astonishment after one amazing event bursts out as a half-horrified, half-delighted “Oh my god, that really happened!” His joy at breaking out of his everyday is infectious, and Stiller-the-director works glory without needing to resort to fantasy: later, when Walter skateboards his way through the hills of rural Iceland, the palpable authenticity of such a physical feat is what makes it so electrifying.

Yes, Iceland. Walter’s journey to find O’Connell and discover where that missing negative might be is a globe-hopping one, and it is fraught by mundane practicalities: amidst his great adventure, Walter is counting his pennies. (His stop in Iceland includes one scene in which he’s tallying up the expenses of this trip.) Daydreaming is cheaper! Though not as much fun.

Actually heartbreaking, though, is the uncommented-upon integrity that is driving Walter. That new boss? He’s come in to shut down Life magazine, and Walter is about to lose the job that he is now taking his life in his hands to complete. He could have just let the missing negative go — what difference would it make, in the long run, or even in the short term? The script — by Steve Conrad, who’s shown, with his The Pursuit of Happyness and The Weatherman, that he knows about hardheaded reality — makes no bones about the fate of Life magazine: there is no prospect that it will be saved at the last minute. I suspect part of why the anachronism of Life was chosen for the setting here — the real magazine ceased publication as a standalone monthly way back in 2000 — is not just the iconic stature of its name but so that we would hold no hopes of its resurrection. It’s gone. It’s done. The question is only whether Walter will survive the sinking.

It’s clear, then, that as much as Walter would like to impress his pretty coworker (Kristen Wiig: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Girl Most Likely) with his derring-do — her online dating profile says she likes men who are “adventurous, brave, and creative” — the brave, adventurous, and creative lengths he goes to here in pursuit of that negative are about maintaining his own soul as his world is falling apart around him. Will he be downsized out of existence? Or will he endure?

And that may be the most bittersweet thing about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: the smallness of its expectations for its hero. Thank goodness it goes about pushing him toward a good end in a way that is as cheery and as airy as it is. I’m not sure I could bear it otherwise.

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