It doesn't require a wild imagination to picture a terrible version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty starring Ben Stiller. For starters, James Thurber's original short story isn't much of one: a gimmicky wisp better suited to the series of Chuck Jones cartoons it inspired than a full-on feature. Stiller, for his part, is a hugely talented guy who nonetheless makes time for workaday lazy-comedy franchises like the Fockers and Night at the Museum series; Mitty could easily be synthesized from the two, placing the put-upon everyschmuck Greg Focker in the fantastical, family-friendly, little-guy-with-a-dream context of Museum.
So maybe it should be taken as a small miracle that Stiller's Walter Mitty, which he also directed, is not that movie. Stiller is in low-key mode here as the withdrawn Mitty, a fortysomething in charge of "negative assets" for a fading LIFE magazine. The movie establishes the details of his workaday existence in its opening moments—carefully filling out his check ledger by hand; hesitating over whether to send a "wink" over an online dating service to his office crush Cheryl (Kristen Wiig)—with precisely framed camera work that recalls Wes Anderson. When he retreats into a fantastical inner life, some of the material verges on standard special-effects overkill, but the effects are unusually good, even lyrical, and some of the sequences have touches of the movie parodies with which Stiller has always shown an affinity and a facility. (Benjamin Button gets a particularly funny little riff.)
So for its first 30 minutes or so, Mitty is surprisingly sweet and a pleasure to watch. Of course, a guy fantasizing about stuff that isn't happening isn't much of a narrative engine, as Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad discussed at the NYFF press conference, so the movie must get Mitty out into the world. As Mitty receives simultaneous news that LIFE is going all digital and that he must recover a missing photo negative from star freelancer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), he makes some unexpected leaps of faith, begins living life to the fullest, etc.
And at first, this material is a pleasure, too: the mid-life crisis catharsis seems earned, especially when mixed with visions of a made-up Kristen Wiig strumming a guitar and singing "Space Oddity" to cheer Walter along. But after the third or fourth gently surging indie-rock anthem pushes Walter into the unknown, the movie's sincerity starts to look a bit more synthetic; I don't doubt Stiller's commitment to this material, but he seems to think I might unless he nudges me into an epiphany along with Walter. Strangely, the movie's solution to the dilemma of momentum-killing fantasy sequences also burdens its second half with a "reality" that feels nearly as fantastical. (It doesn't help that the whimsy of Walter's real-life experiences, especially in the second hour, makes weirder leaps than some of his reveries.)
Indeed, Mitty's adventures feel a little like the Hollywood lifer's idea of truly living: jetting off to remote countries, interacting with quirky strangers, achieving quasi-spiritual renewal, and other stuff that Stiller's earlier films would be more inclined to satirize than celebrate. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty doesn't wheeze with half-hearted schtick the way Stiller's comedy franchises do, but screenwriter architecture is nonetheless visible through the melancholy, with its carefully chosen touchstones and motifs (and, on the production side, mall-food product placement that breaks the spell even as it, yeah, kinda makes me want a Cinnabon). Stiller's heartfelt dramedy recalls Stranger Than Fiction: a mainstream studio movie reaching for something offbeat and affecting. It's less cloying than that movie, and probably the most technically accomplished movie Stiller has ever made behind the camera. But what lingers is the reaching rather than the emotion.
Fox will release this film on Christmas