No wonder it wasn't easy for Ben Stiller to make the Secret Life of Walter Mitty (which itself is a loose remake of the 1947 film of the same name). It's pretty much an unsellable film which genre is hard to describe. But I sure am happy it did finally get made. It's one of Stiller's best directorial projects, if not the best one; and I'd dare say it also features his best performance as an actor.
Ben's never had a problem underselling himself, playing characters of say...simple nature, like Derek Zoolander or Tugg Speedman and "bumblebees" like Greg Focker. "Mouse" Walter Mitty, a negative assets employee at dying Life magazine, might be the closest Stiller ever got to play a real, relatable character. Though it has to be said Walter too is lead to some extremes, especially early on, when the script is trying to dig as much excitement from Walter's unexciting day to day life, way of his action/comedy daydreams.
Indeed, Walter's daydreams are the weakest part of the film (well, maybe apart from the iceman & Benjamin Button ones...), they break up the narrative and are not particularly funny. Despite his only seemingly exciting daydreams you can't say Walter is not an interesting person in his real life. He is not a confrontational sort, seems weird (thanks to his zoning out) and "grey" to those around him but even in the first third of the film you can see while seemingly shy and underachieving, he is not a coward and that he is person of integrity. Exploring all this was the interesting part of the first, weakest third of the film. The Secret Life... noticeably picks up after Walter starts chasing after a lost negative and his photographer sort-of-friend Sean and then never lets go.
Walter, who gave up on cool life (mohawk-wearing & skateboarding youth) after his father's death, once reality bit (yes, I've seen quite a few of Stiller's films!), suddenly - thanks to some encouragement from Cheryl, his potential love interest - finds himself in Greenland and after a very interesting interpretation and use of David Bowie's Space Oddity (for me a contender for a best use of a Bowie song on film) the adventures keep on rolling.
Yes, there is a message. Don't we hate Hollywood messages. Don't Instagram everything. Live life to the fullest. Don't ever give up. Value those around you. Beauty is everywhere in everything. Blah blah. The success of the Secret life of Walter Mitty lies in how surprisingly grounded in reality and "the moment" it stays. The film is not about how Walter lost 20 years of his life not going after his dream and how he finally did just that and suddenly a fairytale happened. It actually ends up celebrating the past 20 years of his life and simply evolving the character, not completely transforming it.
Ben Stiller is on screen pretty much the whole film and his performance is very strong throughout, the rest of the cast enhances it accordingly, with the Nordic actors adding a great unusual flavour. It was nice seeing Kristen Wiig duet with Bowie (sort of), Shirley McLane being as charismatic as ever playing Walter's mum, and Sean Penn doing his "cool lone wolf giving life lessons" étude was also quite fun to see.
Another great positive of the film are the locations. Greenland, Iceland or Himalayas are used quite well for eye candy purposes (the Iceland skateboard ride makes me emotional just thinking about it, pure beauty) but they also keep the story going and help explore Walter's character.
Honourable music mention, I am the music buff after all. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty uses quite a few songs (apart from the aforementioned Bowie also by Arcade Fire, Of Monsters and Men or Rogue Wave) which all enhance the whole "fly little Mitty fly" feel of the film, the score in comparison to them was less striking, but that really should be a positive. A good score should not take attention away from the story, just enhance it, and that's exactly what Theodore Shapiro's score does.
Final verdict: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is not a perfect film but it sure is a visually striking and heartwarming sort-of-a comedy, which avoids quite a few clichés and doesn't try too hard to exploit emotions from its audience. Quite what its audience is is another matter. My screening had a couple, me (a mid-20's woman, that is) and a dad with two sons. Everyone stayed till the end and didn't leave right as the credits started rolling (which I found unusual), so I guess we all liked it. Well I wish Walter does find its audience, as well as some critical recognition. It deserves it. And so does Ben Stiller, one of the hardest working men in Hollywood.