In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller has an adventure that takes him up a mountain to find a single film frame and the wise and wizened photographer who took the shot. What does he find on that mountain peak? Certainly not the frame. Just himself, Sean Penn and the life that ebbs and flows around him. The strength and weakness of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is that Mitty gets to live and experience the fantasy of a life time to live the Life Magazine motto: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”
Life Magazine in Mitty exists to counterpoint the non-life of Mitty, his lack of Match.com bio worthy moments that prevents him from sending a digital wink to heart desire Cheryl Melhoff– a winsome and perpetually smiling Kristen Wiig playing it absolutely straight. The problem is that after giving this inaction hero several funny fantasy adventures depicting his unwillingness to move the line from mind to life, it thrusts him into action hero mode with barely a transitional thought, cut or dissolve. The adventure can’t be trusted because the audience keeps on expecting for Mitty to be interrupted and admit that it is just another of his “zone outs”. Ben Stiller, star and director, creates the conceit of a human being only to give us a shlub turned action hero– essentially generating a conceit of conceit. Still, the adventure is grand even if this mystical voyage of self-discovery discovers very little new.
The movie is a floating anachronism, generating this out of time quality that feels at least a decade off. When Stiller gets to that mountaintop and encounters Penn’s guru of guru lining up his shot and fixating on other things beyond the frame the myth of the seasoned cinematographer grips Walter Mitty, the silent master of light and form giving the commentary track for the auteur/master definitive director’s cut. Stiller is the eager student going “I See it now” and soaking it all in. Perhaps it is all meant to be God directed, other directed, inner directed. The film’s tone only gives the light and not the answer.
Stiller as Mitty shorts the emotional life for the punch line. He is content to play Pagliacci - the clown crying on the inside while smiling on the outside. Stiller is surer with pulling the funny bone than tugging the heart strings. The melancholy remains and not the reality of the sun peaking through the clouds. The journey isn't from boy to man but from responsibility to enjoying and achieving that one perfect thing, from being a good craftsman to a better artist.
The victory for Walter Mitty is being there when the drudgery of craft yields to this better vision of himself and the world. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty gets a B from me.