The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an obvious departure from the usual rom-com disaster porn and high-concept wackiness we're used to seeing from Ben Stiller, but the differences are more subtle than you might think. What sets this film apart is tone. To his credit as a director, Stiller hits all the major cliches, but spins them just right so that when you leave the theater it's with a feeling of rejuvenation.
Walter Mitty is a nerdy photo guy at Life magazine that handles the negatives for their cover shots. In his down time (which seems to be most if the time) he has elaborate day-dreams about his coworker, Cheryll Melhoff, played by Kristen Wiig. These fantasies are mostly rendered beautifully in a way one imagines Michel Gondry might handle the material, though some are debased a bit by outlandish CGI. The most effective of these scenes rely on nothing more than an acoustic guitar or chin prosthetic. The wanderings of Mitty's mind start to cause problems for him when a new manager, charged with downscaling the magazine into an online-only format, pressures him to finish the cover photo for their final physical issue; a photo which is mysteriously lost.
The ensuing plot hole is a nagging one. When Walter shares his concern over the photo whith Cheryll, she suggests that he go to Greenland to question the photographer, Sean O'connell, played by Sean Penn. I couldn't help but ask, "Why doesn't he tell his boss exactly what happened, that the photo was gone before he ever looked at the reel?" Then it's explained that Sean O'connell doesn't carry a cellular phone because he's "oldschool" and there's no way to reach him other than physically going to greenland. This wouldn't bother me except that this is a movie lousy with cell phones, often with really annoying ringtones.
Once Walter inevitably decides to go to Greenland the movie really picks up. Where the first half was filled with his fantastic daydreams, the second half of the film showcases Walter going on actual thrilling adventures in remote and beautiful parts of the world. This dichotomy is set up brilliantly and makes the second and third acts all the more satisfying. Though some of the thrills are a bit unbelievable, the movie manages to keep the viewer grounded with great cinematography, imagery, and character. Stiller's transition as Walter into the man that is the object of his fantasy is subtle and true to the character. This ethic is repeated by Penn's pitch-perfect performance as Sean O'connell. He comes across as enigmatic in a believable way, a man that loves his work and lives in the moment.
The romance between Walter and Cheryll has a similar competent understatedness. I like that it never becomes a stressful ordeal and that we never feel like Walter's motivation in these crazy adventures is to win her heart. The downside is that it feels like Cheryll could have been cut from the film without losing too much. Also, I don't care for where their relationship ends up. I feel that if it had gone another way it would be more true to the theme of the film, and the character would have been a more important foil.
I have small qualms with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. There are a lot of needle-drops, it's a bit predictable, and it's a little confused about when it should end. However, these things are forgivable considering what the film accomplishes. Ben Stiller built a familiar base of light romance and comedy in order to reach for something more ambitious. It feels like he genuinely wanted to make a film that made people think about their lives a little differently, and with a little more awareness. This worked wonderfully on me because I believed in Walter Mitty as a person. He made me want to broaden my perspective, and what else can you ask for in a movie?