As you’re introduced to the world of Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty you may hear Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durdin from Fight Club whispering in your mind; “the things you own, ending up owning you.” Mitty (Stiller), a negative processor/photographer liaison for LIFE Magazine must endure the corporate vultures (played/led by the bearded Adam Scott) of the Time Life corporation closing the physical publication for an exclusively online existence. Coincidentally, famous photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) sends one perfect photograph for Walter to publish as the final cover that claims to "capture the quintessence of LIFE." When Walter can't find that shot Walter is given an ultimatum to find the photo or never return.
Stiller's Walter Mitty is an analogue man, in a digital age. During the opening of the film he cannot even use an online dating site to send a 'wink' to the object of his affection Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) — he must call 'tech support' for assistance. Manually calculating his expenses in his cheque book, minimalist whitewashed apartment walls, modest practical short sleeve collared shirts; Mitty's only excitement come in the form of spells of escapist fantasy. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty shows you that when your day dreams may haunt you into action.
Stiller's directorial composition for Mitty is so beautifully precise. Every single frame feels like he's submitting cover shots for LIFE. There’s sophistication in Stiller’s ability to visually display Mitty’s emotional journey. At the beginning of the film it feels like Walter's life is happening in the confines of his spaces. He’s as bland as his drab apartment, as glacial and distant as the modern architecture of the Time Life building; and even his darkened office feels like the darkness of his life. Once the wonderful spectacles of his projections allow him to get the girl or to stand up to the office bully, it's the necessary call to action for Mitty's decision. Writer Steven Conrad's script carefully and ominously closes the vice of technology on Walter’s life and the harsh suffocation of the reality of his physical world collapsing. He has been living vicariously through the experiences of the pictures he has been carefully curating and it takes a monstrous gesture, huge risks and Wiig's Cheryl serenading him with David Bowie to propel him on this journey. Conrad fashions elaborate heroic fantasies for Mitty and Stiller breathes them to life with such over the top fervour. Cheryl feels like Wiig's most authentic concoction. She's a perfectly sweet and sincere person in her own right but it's her ability to switch into the absurd version of herself to fulfil Mitty's evolving fantasy self that utilises her impeccable comedic timing.
Whether it's the warmth of afternoon sunsets, the biting shaved ice of Himalayan Mountain tops or the pure adrenaline rush of slicing tarmac on a long board at high speed — it is goose-bump inducing stuff to watch someone experiencing the world and their own potential for the first time. Stiller's connection to the material is clear from the outset. His performance perfectly navigates the regret for sacrificing personal goals for familial responsibility and being open to absorb everything his dream self will allow. With the majority of the film scored by Jose Gonzalez and the titular track Of Monsters and Men's ‘Dirty Paws’ echoing throughout, the music of Mitty perfectly complements the tone of the entire film. The minor flaws of this great piece of cinematic optimism come in the form of über, over-the-top corporate 'douchery' from Adam Scott and sister, played by Kathryn Hahn, who came off like a Napolean Dynamite extra.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has a beating heart, a percussive drive and a tear inducing beauty that shows you that it’s never too late to follow your dreams. This is Stiller’s pièce de résistance.
[rating=4] and a half
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Ben Stiller Written by: Steve Conrad (based on the short story by James Thurber ) Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Kathryn Hahn, Adam Scott, Shirley MacLaine, Patton Oswalt