What does Ben Stiller dream about? In 2010, the year Little Fockers made $300m and Greenberg got ignored, it’s easy to imagine him dreaming of making The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. The story of a man who wants to be taken seriously – a mix of arthouse aspirations, mainstream schlock and goofy comedy – it’s a perfect fit for the guy who’s spent his career looking slightly uncomfortable in his comfort zone.
James Thurber’s two-page satire doesn’t naturally lend itself to a big-budget feature, but just like Danny Kaye’s 1947 big-screen version, Stiller’s modern adap only borrows the name. The new Walter Mitty is a bit of a loser. A boring milquetoast who looks grey, wears beige and does a lot of staring into the middle-distance when he’s meant to be working.
Except he’s rarely ever at work in his head, escaping into elaborate fantasies where he answers back to his snarky boss, sweeps the hot girl off her feet and rescues three-legged dogs from exploding buildings. In reality, he’s stuck in the basement office of Life magazine where the boss (Adam Scott) and the girl (Kristen Wiig) only notice him at all when he loses the cover photo for the magazine’s final issue.
Fed up with just daydreaming about seizing the day, he sets off to track down Sean Penn’s guerrilla photojournalist and recover the missing print himself: climbing mountains, outrunning volcanoes and fighting sharks to an uplifting soundtrack of indie hits.
If it all sounds a bit like an advert for a pair of trainers, it also looks like one. With the panoramic visuals providing the perfect backdrop, you half expect Stiller to pause halfway up a mountain, pull a Blue Steel face to camera and tell us to “Just do it”.
In fact, a large chunk of the film really is an advert; Mitty is constantly interrupted by a telesales rep from the dating website eHarmony, helping him update his dull profile with all the exciting things he’s doing (and presumably helping the company boost its membership numbers).
Thankfully, none of this really matters because Stiller does such a good job selling the important stuff.
Drawing comparisons with big-hearted favourites such as It’s A Wonderful Life and even last year’s The Life Of Pi, TSLOWM doesn’t quite stand up – but it still packs a fairly hefty wallop of uplifting, heartfelt, inspirational joy, giving off the glow of a bank-holiday classic in waiting.
Pretty much all the credit belongs to Stiller behind the camera – a director who has waited years to outgrow frat-pack comedies and make a film like this – turning a sappy Hollywood button-pusher into a slick, smart-looking fantasy that doesn’t mind showing its indie roots.
Subtle CG is confidently woven into the stunning real-world visuals, while Hitchcockian high angles and studious Wes Anderson-esque framing makes more of an impact than all the flashy fantasy gags.
Not that the dream sequences aren’t a ton of fun. Whether he’s pavement surfing through Manhattan, staging a superhero showdown in a lift or riding an ice floe to the coffee machine, Mitty’s daydreams keep the first half of the film from falling asleep. The problems come when he decides to wake up.
Leaving New York (and the book) behind, Mitty jets off to Greenland in the footsteps of Penn’s rugged adventurer – spurred on by Wiig’s motivational phone messages (which aren’t nearly enough to do her talent any justice). Turning from quirky to corny at the drop of a hat, it sets an uneven tone that continues throughout. One minute Mitty’s coming to terms with grief, the next he’s soliciting belly laughs as a Benjamin Button man-child.
One sequence has him fighting off sharks with a briefcase, another finds him misting up on a pilgrimage trail. The silly comedy jars with the silly soul-searching and the result is a movie that, just like its main character, wants to be a lot of things that it isn’t.
What it is, however, is a perfectly lovely film. Cold hearts might not be warmed-up by the sugary self-help sections, but it’s almost impossible not to love the sheer ambition of Walter Mitty. How many other movies try so hard to make you laugh, cry, quit your job (and join a dating website) all at the same time?
Like most daydreams, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is funny, sad, weird and corny all at once – and you’ll probably only remember the good bits as soon as it’s finished. But it’s still a lot better than real life...