The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which made its world premiere at the New York Film Festival Saturday, is one of those projects that’s been knocking around Hollywood for a while. It began as a slender story by James Thurber way back in 1939, first adapted (very loosely) for Danny Kaye in 1947. This current iteration has been in development since 1994; Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, Mike Myers, Zach Braff, and Sacha Baron Cohen have all been attached to star, while Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Chuck Russell, and Gore Verbinski (among others) were slotted to direct. Now, at long last, here is the film, directed by and starring Ben Stiller, whose take on the material neither remakes Kaye nor returns to Thurber. This script, Stiller said after the media screening Saturday afternoon, “didn’t try to redo what had already been done very well by Danny Kaye. And obviously I didn’t want to do that; nobody would want to see me attempt to do that.”
What Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad came up with was a contemporary take on the story of the quintessential daydreamer. In this variation, Mitty (Stiller) is a quiet, lonesome bachelor who has toiled for 16 years in the photo department at Life magazine. He is the publication’s primary liaison with Sean O’Connell, a legendary, globetrotting ace photographer (a properly wry and grizzled Sean Penn), so when the print edition announces it’s closing up shop, Mitty is entrusted with the negative for O’Connell’s sure-to-be-iconic cover photo. Only trouble is, it’s nowhere to be found, so with the encouragement of a fellow employee and crush object (Kristen Wiig), Mitty overcomes his insular nature and attempts to track down the daredevil photog.
Within this framework exists Thurber’s story of an average guy who escapes his mundane existence via elaborate, out-of-nowhere fantasies. “I, like, zoned out for a second,” Walter says, coming back out of one of his trances. The updated timeframe allows these flights of fancy to riff on current action-movie tropes: elevator fights, leaps from (and into) tall buildings, gravity-defying wire work. Stiller stages them with just the right amount of winking; they’ve got an absurdist streak, but the humor is gentle, and seldom threatens the picture’s commendable warmth.
Walter Mitty is, ultimately, the story of its protagonist fusing the brave hero of his fantasy life with the timid nebbish of his real one. “Each fantasy leads to him becoming who he is,” Stiller explained afterwards, “and ultimately being able to realize his full self.” The first time that fusion takes place, when the real guy first does the kind of thing he’d only dream of, he has a powerful moment of self-realization, muttering to himself, “Oh my God. That really happened.”
At its heart, then, it’s a good old-fashioned adventure movie, with a heavy dose of humor and heart. Stiller’s direction is sure-handed throughout; he does some of his best work in big, wide, often all but empty compositions, and there’s a wonderfully timeless quality to the style in general (and the production design in particular). The location work and special effects are impressive, but Stiller is just as enraptured with the sprung rhythms of the peculiar characters Mitty meets along the way; there’s a lovely little scene with Patton Oswalt, for example, and his encounter with Ólafur Darri Ólafsson’s drunken helicopter pilot, capped with a perfectly timed “OK, I’m not gonna go with you,” is the comic high point.
Stiller’s swinging for the fences here, trying to make a film that juggles comic, heroic, and bittersweet tones simultaneously. “Honestly, as a filmmaker, you don’t know what the tone is gonna be until you make the movie and you see it,” he confessed, noting that the cast had gathered for group viewings of films that pulled off that balancing act (pressed for examples, Kristen Wiig joked, “Oh my gosh, he said, let’s watch Zoolander, Cable Guy…”).
With such high aims, it’s too bad that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty falls somewhat short of greatness. It is, at times, a bit too precious for its own good, and Stiller is often willing to let his indie soundtrack do the hard work of setting that elusive tone. There is a weird, left-field spoof of Benjamin Button that seems flown in from a Friedberg/Seltzer joint. And, as you may have heard, there is some fairly distracting product placement banging around the film (though the critics who are discounting the picture solely on that basis are due for a long, sad talk on how Hollywood works).
But it’s not often that you come across a “big” movie as earnest and patently un-cynical as this one. There’s not a mean bone in its entire body; it’s a lovely, likable movie, and shows a growth in the humanity of Stiller’s directorial work that is heartening indeed.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty premiered this weekend at the New York Film Festival. It opens in wide release on Christmas Day.