Over the course of Ben Stiller‘s illustrious comedic career, the actor has played everything from a male supermodel in “Zoolander” to the evil CEO of an uber-elite fitness center in “Dodgeball”. So, it comes as a bit of a surprise that the Hollywood A-lister chose to play the boring, pencil-pushing title character in “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.” The film, which he directs as well, is definitely a much more dramatic turn than his last directorial outing for 2008’s “Tropic Thunder.” Showing his impressive range as both an actor and a filmmaker, Stiller livens up James Thurber’s 1939 tale and delivers a family-friendly PG picture perfect for everyone home for the Holidays.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) isn’t exactly hero material. Sitting in his altogether sterile, grey apartment, the middle-aged Photo Processor for “Life” magazine can’t even “wink” at someone’s eHarmony profile page without freaking out. Yet, in this first scene, something amazing happens. Suddenly, reality melts away and Walter miraculously sweeps his crush (Kristen Wiig) off her feet in spectacular fashion. Walter is a dreamer, and as the film progresses, we watch the timid man conjure plenty of over-the-top moments that aid in spicing up his lackluster lifestyle. But after the cover photo goes missing for the latest, and also last, issue of Life Magazine ever, Walter decides to stop dreaming and start living by embarking on a quest to track down the illusive photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) and get the photo back.
Ben Stiller is something of a Jack-Of-All-Trades in the comedy world. RomComs, satires, farces, you name it; he’s done it. But with his salt and pepper hair and muted personality, “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” introduces the audience to a much more mature side of Stiller’s acting talents. While there are certain moments that are intended as being purely comical, especially one that deals with a hilarious take on the Benjamin Button scenario, screenwriter Steve Conrad (The Weather Man) crafts Walter as being much more awkward in real life rather than wacky. Stiller nails this combination, however. He brings just enough gawkiness to his role to keep the viewer switching between feeling sorry for the character and laughing at all his imperfections.
When Walter decides to leave his old life behind in order to find photographer Sean O’Connell, Stiller (now wearing his director’s hat) doesn’t hold back in taking the audience to plenty of breathtaking locations. From the sprawling shoreline of Greenland, to the still active volcanoes of Iceland, and even the Himalayas, we watch as Walter experiences parts of the world few have ever seen. Working with Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (The Recruit), Stiller captures the beauty of these breathtaking locales with impressive style and creativity.
Stiller’s style and creativity as a director also takes over in his use of text. Reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film, Stiller blends words, phrases, mottos, and even the title of his movie in with all of the on-screen action. This subtle technique fuses perfectly with the dreamlike aesthetic of the film as a whole, and also allows Stiller to add a signature stamp to his motion picture.
“The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” will no doubt become a very polarizing film when it hits theaters. While in a different type of role, fans of Ben Stiller’s comedy canon will be more than satisfied because the movie is essentially two hours of the actor on screen. This relentless focus on a single character, however, is also a bit of a distraction. The talented Kristen Wiig, playing Walter’s love interest Cheryl, is never given a chance to say or do anything remotely funny. Her small, half-boiled side-plot seems like a bonafide co-starring role in comparison to Sean Penn’s performance. His Sean O’Connell character is given all of three scenes in the entire movie. The devilish Corporate Consultant Ted Hendricks, played to perfection by Adam Scott, has the meatiest secondary role, but even he fades away once Walter embarks on his epic voyage.
While the film certainly has more than a few screenplay flaws, there is no denying that it also has a big heart. Stiller breathes life
into his latest vehicle, and shows that he has the creative chops to be a big time director as well. While it was snubbed by the Golden Globes last week in favor of more satirical fare in the comedy and musical category, there is still a vibrant tale worthy to be told behind this big screen adaptation. “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” is uplifting, full of joy, and arrives just in time to aid in swaying your New Years Resolution from something lame to something spectacular.
Rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence
By David Morris