Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) has the perfect life, he is a doting son, a great friend and loves his job as a photo editor at Life Magazine. He also loves to to escape his real life by slipping into fantasy where he imagines himself as a dashing romantic hero. He has a crush on his colleague Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) but can barely talk to her, instead inserting her in his fantastical life. When his magazine is bought out and told to go digital, Walter and Cherly's jobs are at stake, forcing Walter to be a hero in the real world, starting on a journey around the world to find a legendary photographer (Sean Penn).
'It looks like an ad.’ This frequent criticism of Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is not just a reference to the film’s frequent product placement (of which, admittedly there is a lot), or to its unashamed ode to the joys of global adventure travel. The criticism is also, in a roundabout way, signalling one of the film’s chief pleasures: its crystal clear, vividly colourful, spectacular widescreen cinematography that’s of a quality we most often see in ads rather than movies these days. Shot on 35mm film by New Zealand DP Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano), the visuals are so beautifully crisp, especially in the landscape scenes featuring Greenland, Iceland and the Himalayas, but also in the scenes set inside a stylised New York metropolis, that they almost hurt your eyes. It’s enough to make us realise how often we accommodate to shaky, grainy, muddy imagery – even though digital is also capable of stunning results these days.
heartfelt – despite the product placement.
Such nostalgia for celluloid is a fitting emotion to have when watching a story that centres upon a lost photo negative, and a dying print magazine which is losing half its staff as it moves online. Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller who works both sides of the camera here, as he did in Reality Bites, Zoolander and Tropic Thunder) is a downtrodden photo librarian who beavers away in the basement at Life magazine, a publication renowned for its iconic photojournalism and landscape photography. With hunched shoulders, wearing beige windbreaker and tie, Walter is the little guy at work whom nobody notices – though in his head he’s the star of preposterously detailed fantasies, involving leaping tall buildings, rescuing three-legged dogs, and delivering scathing put-downs to his work nemesis (a brilliantly hateable Adam Scott, whose obnoxious beard forms an ongoing joke).
At home, Walter struggles to fill in his eHarmony dating profile because he has no interests, hobbies or travel adventures to report. He agonises over sending a 'wink’ to his work crush, the friendly and funny Cheryl Madhoff (played by Kristen Wiig, whose warmth and humour is perfect for the role).
When Walter loses the mysterious photo negative intended for the final Life cover, (apparently the photo is the 'quintessence’ of what Life is about), he sets out on an adventure to find the off-the-grid and somewhat mythical freelance photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn in mystical wild-man mode). This section of the film is where Walter’s fantasies and his real life coalesce into one long montage of shark-punching, helicopter-catching, skateboard-riding, mountain-climbing and volcano-escaping. Many have criticised the excesses of these Stiller-aggrandising scenes, which are set to inspiring pop hymns by the likes of Arcade Fire and Jose Gonzalez. For me, they were a dazzling, though sometimes silly pleasure, set off by a prosaic yet profound verbal exchange when Sean is finally found – photographing shy snow leopards, of course.
Written by Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness), Stiller’s version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a radical departure both from the original 1939 New Yorker short story by James Thurber, where Walter was a henpecked husband, and the 1947 movie of the same name, starring Danny Kaye as a daydreaming proof-reader with an overbearing mother. This modern version is very much a piece of 40-something nostalgia (skateboards and action toys like Stretch Armstrong figure large) and a riff on the anxieties around technology-fuelled redundancy. Its ultimate hopefulness may be aided by fantasy, but it feels honest.
'Sincerity’ is a word I find myself using to praise films this year, perhaps because so many movies (even 'arthouse’ ones) seem cynical. Stiller’s version is very much his own passion project, if you believe what you’ve read about the making of it. (Tad Friend’s New Yorker profile of Stiller and his attempt to make the film was a high point of longform journalism last year.) Stiller’s Walter Mitty is heartfelt – despite the product placement. And seriously, how can you talk about modern life without talking about the many products and brands that define our experience and our identities, from fast food to mobile phones and dating websites? Yes, it’s an unashamedly populist big budget blockbuster intended for Boxing Day crowds. But to write it off because it’s that would be to miss its quirky sweetness, its moments of genuine oddball humour, and its rather naked and old-fashioned desire to please and delight.