Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The

Reviewed By Daniel Kelly
Posted 12/18/13 11:09:13

"The not so secret talent of Ben Stiller"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It’s easy to forget that when he’s not clowning around with anthropomorphic museum exhibits or a shameless Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller is a mainstream film-maker of worth. 1994’s “Reality Bites” was a patchy introduction to directorial duty for the comedian, but his subsequent efforts (“The Cable Guy”, “Zoolander” and “Tropic Thunder”) have all been jovial and often ballsy laughers; boasting commentary and intelligence beneath the guffaws. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” observes Stiller journeying a straighter path, remaking a 1947 Danny Kaye vehicle with extensive degrees of 21st Century polish. Stiller can’t fully detach himself from the practise of screen comedy, but this light-hearted and staggeringly pretty addition to his burgeoning filmography displays heightened artistry and storytelling ambition from the man formally known as Gaylord Focker.

“Life” magazine is preparing to publish its final print edition, the concluding touch being an essential image courtesy of legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) for the cover. When Sean’s work reaches the office, the crucial still is missing, with technician and chronic day-dreamer Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) likely to take the blame. Inspired by secretive crush Cheryl (a smiley Kristin Wiig), Walter decides to forgo fantasy and embark on a real adventure, heading to Greenland in search of the elusive O’Connell. The photojournalist proves tricky to find, but on the hunt Walter undergoes challenges even his startling imagination would struggle to realise.

A vast array of film-makers have attempted to remake “Walter Mitty” over the last twenty years, chief amongst them big-hitters like Steven Spielberg, Gore Verbinski and Ron Howard. It’s strange then that Stiller- still relatively green despite debuting almost two decades ago -should be the candidate to successfully bring the character back to cinemas. While it would be remiss to label “Tropic Thunder” a small film, Stiller has never traversed a production with the surface demands of “Walter Mitty”, the story primed with fantastical imagery and scenery literally ripped from a man’s imagination. Stiller copes remarkably well, bringing finesse and confidence to the movie’s larger sequences, never diluting its whimsical voice throughout the array of preposterous internal detours. He also creates a gorgeous look for the feature, collaborating with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, cultivating a realist beauty in the natural environments and a flighty sense of wonderment within Walter’s eternal reverie. The aesthetics are innocently seductive, allowing viewers to become immersed in Stiller’s warm vision, mixing spectacle with homespun charm across the plot’s impressive geographical expanse.

There’s room for a tighter edit, but it doesn’t take Stiller long to establish a relaxed flow and gently grab audience attention. “Walter Mitty” is a fundamentally pleasant story, with a fundamentally pleasant lead for a fundamentally pleasant time of year. Its bagginess would maybe prove distracting during the steamier summer months, but as a festive release “Walter Mitty” works, dispelling a plethora of upbeat messages and a pervading cosiness. Stiller doesn’t ignore the human elements; forming characters on an admittedly broad scale, but allowing winning performances to ensnare our sympathies. The support (including Patton Oswalt, Adam Scott, Sean Penn and a likable Kristen Wiig) do a fine job of helping to develop the titular figure, brought to life with typical underplayed panache by Stiller. His leading turn isn’t as showy as his direction, but it neatly secures the picture’s fate as an appealing serving of Hollywood confection with a subdued yet discernibly affecting presence at the core. There’s an unassuming and fanciful day-dreamer in all of us, Stiller’s everyman charisma ensuring such identifiable tissue isn’t fractured during the viewing process.

The movie never completely separates itself from Stiller’s jocose comfort-zone, often scoping out brazen laughs during the more dynamic set-pieces. It’s amusing to watch Scott and Stiller embark on a crazy inner-city chase or to have Wigg and the lead simulate a surreal, alternative “Benjamin Button”, but these moments do sit a little uneasily alongside the more openly sincere dramatic beats. It instigates slight tonal uncertainty in the first two acts, although Stiller clears the air with a finish that concisely and warm-heartedly extols the movie’s thematic preoccupations. On the surface “Walter Mitty” is clearly about ensuring flighty dreams don’t interfere with the promise of reality, although the addition of Penn’s smooth photographer suggests the director’s relationship with cinema might be a pertinent subtext. It’s important to remember that Stiller was born into a showbiz family and initiated his acting career at an early age – the movie’s soulful introspection proving an intriguing parallel to a life lived almost entirely through fiction. It’s pure speculation of course, but the climax is formed with such sturdy craftsmanship that I suspect the issue factored in on at least a subconscious level.

“Walter Mitty” marks maturation in its creator (even if it’s to a lesser extent than promotional materials teased), presenting an explosive and suitably heartfelt rendition of the tale. It’s not a deeply nuanced effort, but Stiller has sculpted it with feeling and an assured hand, allowing the script’s knowingly unsophisticated endpoint to land with grin-inducing aplomb. Stiller remains an encouraging presence behind the camera, “Walter Mitty” another showcase of his indisputable talents. [B+]

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