Ben Stiller's new film is an odd hybrid of absurd humour and profound life lessons
In Ben Stiller’s adaptation of James Thurber’s short story published in The New Yorker in 1939, Walter Mitty is a sorry picture in wakefulness—without purpose or pluck, quietly assiduous at his job as a “negative assets manager" in the dark rooms of New York’s Life magazine, mostly forlorn, fascinated by ductile man toys and in love with a plain-speaking co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig). Stiller has played the similarly good-natured laughing stock before, including in the films he has directed himself, like Zoolander (2001) and Tropic Thunder (2008).
But he soars in his imagination in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In this absurd world, he rescues a three-legged dog with the help of a blinking gadget and is even Benjamin Button, cradled by a grey-haired Cheryl.
The kernel of Thurber’s story, which The New Yorker has now made available to read online, is the tragic and absolute opposition of the two worlds Walter inhabits. Thurber, a cartoonist, short-story writer and a wit that the magazine celebrated for many years, made fun of the secret eccentricities of the working-classman and this story, even in its very limited length of around three pages, smacks of a deadpan, existentialist humour.
Stiller goes the entire Hollywood hog. After half an hour of the “zoned out" dream trances that punctuate Walter’s workday existence, he becomes a hero in real life too. The magazine decides to go online under a cocky new boss (Adam Scott), and the jobs of many employees, including Walter and Cheryl, are in jeopardy. Walter goes in search of a peripatetic photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), for the last cover photograph—to Greenland, where he jostles with sharks in a tumultuous sea; to Iceland, where he almost skateboards through an erupting volcano; and footslogs an odyssey across the snowy peaks of the upper Himalayas.
The writing by Steve Conrad has some sardonic humour befitting the ideal Ben Stiller universe, but The Secret Life of Walter Mitty still seems like two films cobbled into one. Towards the end, Walter is a man visibly enlightened by a sense of triumphant self-discovery. Some moments in the film are luminous, but the life lessons are not very subtle.
Stiller has the stilted, gawky charm of the misfit throughout, but does not quite pull off the character’s transition from wuss to self-assured romantic. Like the film, his performance has the uneasy combination of a believable man-around-the-corner tension and stale star tropes.
The film’s visual map is beautifully realized, a lot of its natural expanses are the work of marvellous special effects. The soundtrack is a job of genius sampling. Major Tom, a satirical 1980s song by German synth-pop singer Peter Schilling, in a surreal reverie under an overcast Greenland sky, makes for one of the film’s most gratifying scenes.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty releases in theatre on Friday.