In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller plays Mitty, a nervous introvert who works a humdrum job in the photography department of LIFE Magazine. Mitty escapes the monotony of his life by zoning out and disappearing into daydreams.
The audience occupy a space both inside out and out of his head. We watch in pity as Mitty is mocked by colleagues and experiences one life fail after another, from problems with family to trouble navigating a dating website. We also share fantastic flights of fancy in which he takes no guff from his boss and rescues a three-legged dog from an explosives-rigged building.
“God you’re noteworthy!” exclaims co-worker and love interest Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) during one of Mitty’s sabbaticals from reality. The point, of course, is that he isn’t. Missing the print for the cover of the magazine’s final edition, he goes searching for the intrepid hotshot photographer (Sean Penn) who took it — and his life suddenly becomes a great deal more interesting.
At around the point Mitty’s hallucinations begin to lose their lustre, the film (directed by Stiller) becomes a “real” adventure. In the first half Mitty yearns to become a hero but the script must repress him to make him an everyman. When fighting sharks, climbing mountains and flying into volcanoes becomes part of the film’s reality, it arrives with a quaint feeling that the protagonist’s has changed not just himself but the structure of the story around him.
The passage connecting reality to illusion is often visualised using tangible things and physical environments. Neo took the red pill in The Matrix; Alice tumbled down the rabbit hole in Alice and Wonderland; Nada put on the glasses in They Live; Dorothy got swept up in a tornado in The Wizard of Oz. One of the lovely touches in Stiller’s film – which ultimately deflates its sense of adventure by leaning too heavily on sentimentality – is a beautifully abstract moment bridging the two worlds.
David Bowie’s Space Oddity plays as Mitty leaps into a helicopter manned by a drunken pilot in Greenland. The helicopter is real but Cheryl, singing and strumming guitar on the ground, is not. In the middle is Mitty, floating in the most peculiar way.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is genuinely unpredictable, which is rare for a middle of the road studio movie. Stiller packages it with charming aesthetics, including opening credits that drape text over physical locations and smooth editing transitions that integrate locations and composition. Co-star Adam Scott doesn’t get his comedic tempo quite right as the human corporate wrecking ball in charge of dishing out redundancies at Mitty’s work, but Stiller’s unprepossessing nice guy shtick is a natural fit for the material.
Pushing harder to establish Mitty’s existence as an unrelenting grind may have given his breakout adventures more zeal. Or, in the hands of a director like Terry Gilliam, those adventures could have yanked away the remaining shackles of realism and become something much more fantastic.
But that doesn’t gel with Stiller’s broad ambitions. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a Mood Indigo for the masses, a sort of cinematic gateway drug that plays around with art film concepts for audiences who don’t necessarily want to watch an art film.