(2013)3.5Perry SeibertAfter finding his directorial voice with a series of pop-culture satires that culminated in the pitch-perfect, Hollywood-skewering Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller changes gears with an adaptation of the classic James Thurber short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a movie with an earnest, humanistic message that's a substantive break from his previous work.
The director stars as the title character, a devoted employee at Life magazine who's in charge of all of the photo negatives that arrive at the publication. He's a quiet and meek man whom others find bizarre because he often zones out -- sometimes in mid-conversation. What they don't know is that Walter has a rich fantasy life, and his spacey episodes find him imagining any number of things; most recently, he's been daydreaming about how to impress new co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig).
Walter quickly butts heads with Ted (Adam Scott), a corporate shark who has been put in charge of ending the magazine's print edition and converting the publication to a website that will be called Life Online. Ted has been tasked with overseeing the final issue, and luckily the mail brings the latest series of negatives from revered photojournalist Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), including one that he claims in an accompanying letter is the best photo he's ever taken. Ted, who hates Walter on sight, says that's the picture that will grace the cover of the final issue. However, the negative of the photo is not in the envelope, prompting Walter to go on the sort of thrilling adventure that, to this point, he's only thought about.
The first 45 minutes of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty are thoroughly charming and often very funny. Stiller has grown into a very adept director, something apparent in the wordless but still warmly humorous opening scene in which Walter tries to make contact with Cheryl at an online dating site -- though that's hardly the only example. He's given Walter's regular life the sort of fussy visual control that recalls Wes Anderson, but when the daydreams take over, he can switch immediately into another mode altogether. The daydreams recall Stiller's work on his self-titled sketch-comedy show, where he would often make short films in the style of popular directors, and the first half of the movie feels like he figured out how to balance that playful side -- there's a parody of Benjamin Button that brings the house down -- with more original ambitions.
The second half settles into a more straightforward tale -- a bittersweet, quirky road movie that finds Walter traveling around the world to find O'Connell. The daydreams disappear at the midpoint, and while that's thematically important and absolutely right from a storytelling standpoint, you miss the anarchic energy they brought to the film's tone of whimsical melancholy.
Steven Conrad's script has a quite lovely central message: In an age in which everyone is encouraged to live publicly on social media, there are brave, important, and lovely souls who go unnoticed and underappreciated. It's a concept Stiller treats reverently and gently -- even if the symbolism of Life becoming Life Online is thunderously obvious. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty may be the first time the director hasn't improved over his previous film, but it's also quite unlike anything he's tried before. Earnestness is often the death of comedy, but this movie has something to say, and it says it with humor, style, and heart.
In this comedic adaptation of James Thurber's short story, Ben Stiller stars as Walter, a milquetoast proofreader for a magazine publishing firm. Walter is constitutionally incapable of standing up for himself, so he retreats into his fantasy world, where he is heroic, poised, self-assured, and the master of his fate. Stiller directed from a script by Steven Conrad, with Kristen Wiig, Patton Oswalt, and Shirley MacLaine rounding out the starring cast.