The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
A surprisingly subtle and understated big budget adventure from Ben Stiller
Adapted in the loosest sense from James Thurber’s 1939 short story about an ineffectual daydreaming husband, this family-friendly adventure reinvents Walter (Ben Stiller) as an unmarried, hard-working and inarticulate photo clerk at Life magazine. He is prone to daydreaming himself into fantastical heroic situations, while in reality he struggles to pluck up the courage to ask out his colleague Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). Two crises spur Walter into action: Life’s callous administrative team announcing the magazine’s ‘transition’ to an online-only entity, and Walter simultaneously misplacing the photo intended for the final cover – reportedly the finest work of extreme photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn, lightly sending himself up in a fun cameo). Encouraged by Cheryl, Walter sets out on a globe-spanning journey to find the elusive O’Connell and the all-important photo.
It is tempting to dismiss this film as shallow Hollywood Holiday pap, and it certainly has all the hallmarks – incessant product placement, thrilling but inconsequential effects sequences, and a visual aesthetic that recalls the idealised sheen of a mobile phone advert. But there are subtler elements at work here too, and they raise the film into more interesting territory. Stiller, who directs as well as stars, appears to be intentionally fighting Hollywood’s tendency to adapt American literature with po-faced reverence. He maintains a light and funny tone throughout, and at one point takes a direct shot at David Fincher’s bloated and self-important Benjamin Button, itself adapted from a Scott Fitzgerald novella. Stiller also trusts himself as an actor more than he has previously (none of Zoolander’s mugging here), and while there is a whiff of self-regard to his understated performance, it works to keep the film grounded in more outlandish moments. Surprisingly for such a big-budget spectacle, it is in the details that Walter Mitty really works.
General release from Thu 26 Dec.