The Secret Life of Walter Mitty shouldn’t really hang together. Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, written by Steve Conrad, and based loosely on the 1939 short story by James Thurber (and following in the footsteps of the 1947 film version starring Danny Kaye), the film is an often wild assemblage of tones and ideas. Some of the fantasy sequences that play out in Walter’s daydreams are choked with CGI and tiresome in their plasticity, yet others are simple and perfectly executed glimpses into the character’s psyche. Some of the plot twists feel absurd even for a comic road movie, yet the acting within individual scenes is enough to keep the ground under your feet one step at a time. The film has a habit of falling back on existential revelation through scenery changes, yet what else should we want or expect from a story about a man who learns to embrace life’s possibilities while traveling around the world? And it’s occasionally sentimental to the point of being a little corny, but crucially, you never get the sense that Stiller’s trying to pull one over on you. The characters aren’t mocked for wanting to be loved, or to do good work, or to connect with one another, and there’s no sense of irony or distance between Stiller’s presentation of the film and its effect on the viewer. The film skates between meditation and slapstick, aiming for — and mostly achieving — a kind of fragile wistfulness that works in the moment, even if it’s a little fleeting after.
So it almost shouldn’t work, but it does, thanks largely to Stiller’s sensitivity, insight, and patience. He’s willing to let characters grow in little ways, and the film is at its most rewarding when it feels like a big movie that plays it small: sweeping effects and vistas jutting against tiny jokes and characters moments. The scenery intentionally dwarfs the players yet winds up pushing their trivial human drama to the forefront. It might seem weird to think of Stiller as possessing that sensitivity and tenderness, too, but then, he’s never been just one kind of actor, or writer, or director. Yes, this is the guy who did all three of those jobs on Zoolander, as goofy and surreal a comedy as you could ask for, as well as Tropic Thunder, one of the funniest and smartest Hollywood satires in years. But this is also the guy who explored a dark, prickly, pathetic side of friendship in The Cable Guy, and — probably most importantly in this context — directed Reality Bites, which dealt with post-grad angst, coming out to your parents, and trying to figure out how to have a career that doesn’t make you dead inside. In other words, Stiller’s not always trying to be funny, or even the same kind of funny, and he’s certainly not afraid or unable to explore the heartfelt concerns that can inspire and fuel comedy. If there’s a connective tissue to his films, it’s a commitment to whatever mode he’s working in at the time that makes each individual film stand out. Because look: Zoolander is a daffy movie — a fashion designer creates a Manchurian Candidate situation to kill the prime minister of Malaysia so he can produce cheap clothes, and also there’s dance competitions — but Stiller is never less than 100% in the mix. He goes for the brass ring every time, which means that even when he misses, he has the potential to be a more interesting filmmaker than somebody who never cared one way or the other.
In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Stiller’s focus is on how things end: jobs, relationships, lifestyles. Conrad’s script takes Thurber’s original idea — henpecked guy escapes life’s tedium through detailed daydreams — and updates it for an era struggling with the tension between old and new media and reeling from technological changes. Stiller’s Walter Mitty works as a negative processor and archivist at Life magazine, which is about to ship its last print issue and become an online-only publication. (In the movie, that is; in real life, it happened in 2007.) Prone to daydreaming, Walter is lonely, somewhat timid, and quietly focused on his work above all else. He’s not henpecked like the original character, either, but rather, a deeply codependent guy who lets his boss treat him like dirt and who makes a series of sacrifices to help his mother and sister, all as a way to cope with the guilt and loss that have haunted him since his dad died when Walter was just a teen. His journey isn’t to bring the daydreams to life, but to get to a place where they’re no longer necessary. Walter basically needs some dedicated therapy. In the movies, that means he gets an adventure.
When a new boss (Adam Scott) comes in to lay people off at the magazine and assist with the transition, Walter is tasked with curating the final cover image, which recently came with other negatives sent by freelance photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). The prize negative, though — the one Sean thinks is the “quintessence” of the magazine — is missing from the roll, so Walter sets off to track down Sean and find the missing photo, using other images from the roll as clues to Sean’s location. This leads him from New York to Iceland to fishing boats to volcanoes to mountains and beyond, as he works to overcome his fears (both of loss and of self-discovery), find the mystery of the missing negative, and achieve some level of enlightenment and change. This is the journey that shapes the rest of the film.
Now, that we know such enlightenment and change are likely in the cards doesn’t make them less meaningful, or less earned. It’s the way they’re handled that matters, and Stiller has an airy, appropriately light touch. The film’s blend of reality and fantasy occasionally recall Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction, with Stiller’s willingness to have Walter’s emotional world bleed into the real one in pleasant ways. The big-ticket daydream sequences, like a superhero-scale brawl early in the film, are actually the least effective of these. The best are the little ideas that what we’re seeing on screen is partly influenced by Walter himself. Walter’s a passionate believer in Life’s motto (one invented for the film), which speaks of using images to establish a connection with another person and to understand our commonalities as people, and occasionally those words show up on signs, in airports, and in the world around Walter’s head. And there are the great “daydream” sequences that work perfectly because they’re the kind of surreal blend of desire and fear that fuel us all: Walter’s image of himself as someone else, someone stronger or more confident, able to tell off the boss or just have a human conversation instead of retreating into a shell that’s somehow tighter but more comfortable every year.
The best of these moments, and the one that transforms the film from a nice little comedy into something just a bit bigger and more meaningful, is the moment where Walter is trying to gather up the courage to hop on a helicopter and imagines that his crush, fellow Life employee Cheryl Meinhoff (Kristen Wiig), has appeared to serenade him with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” There are no effects or flashes of light: she’s simply there, this vision from inside him, inspiring him to do something new and great. The film has several of these moments of sweeping, wordless revelation, and they’re welcoming in their scale, honesty, and lack of cynicism. Funnily enough, they recall the real-life mission statement of the magazine that Walter lives to serve: “We will speak out what is in our mind as fairly, as truthfully, and as decently as we know how.” Sometimes you really can leap and learn to fly.