Walter Mitty isn’t a deep or complex character. He is defined by his actions — where he goes, who he speaks to, how he speaks to them, what decisions he makes. What he is, is the majority of the population. Most of us have plans to do many things. We want to scale Everest. We want to swim with grey whales. We want to bunjee jump or fly to the moon. Walter Mitty represents our laziness, and ultimately our failure.
But he isn’t a loser. Ben Stiller is known for taking on roles and degrading them to the lowest possible social status. His characters usually have no place in the real world because they’re unable to live in it and function on the same level as normal people. Consider White Goodman, with his puffed up blonde hair and thick moustache. He is a caricature. His speech, motives and actions require him to make a fool of himself, and then he ends the movie in a position worse off than when he began it.
Walter Mitty, by comparison, begins the movie in a position that’s already pretty stable. He’s the chief negative assets manager of Life magazine, which means he’s in charge of processing, maintaining and preserving film negatives. You can bet that by the time the movie ends, he will be better off. Of course, he has a crush on a fellow worker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), and the movie begins with him trying unsuccessfully to leave her a wink on her eHarmony page. This whole eHarmony thing is important, because Walter’s profile page is blank; he’s done nothing worth mentioning in his life. He compensates by projecting his desires onto a mental canvas where he sees himself leaping through the air and into flaming buildings, rescuing Cheryl’s three-legged dog and inventing a mechanical prosthetic leg in the process. “Zoning out”, as his sister calls it. I’m pretty sure everyone calls it that.
So Life magazine is moving to new management. It’s going 100% online, like Progressive Car Insurance, which means most of the staff will be let go. To commemorate the final print edition, famed photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) has sent Walter a gift: A reel of film containing frame 25 — the most perfect photograph he’s taken, one which will send Life magazine off in style — along with a note and a wallet. But there’s a problem. Frame 25 is missing. And the new boss, the bearded prig Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), wants it immediately or Walter’s job is no more.
Frame 25 essentially becomes the MacGuffin that allows Walter to embark on a journey through Scandinavia and the mountainous regions of Afghanistan as he seeks not only to find Sean O’Connell and determine the whereabouts of frame 25, but to discover himself. Here is a man who has not travelled outside of America. Now, because of one frame, he is led to Greenland, where he will leap out of an unstable helicopter into icy-cold shark-infested waters. To Iceland, a land of great beauty — its winding roads resemble streams that weave themselves around grand mountains and lush greenery. And then to the Himalayas. Yes, at times The Secret Life plays like a travelogue of these places, but you know what? I don’t care. Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan are spectacular.
The movie is directed by Stiller, and it’s his most mature and fully realised project to date. It is grounded in Walter Mitty, who is aware of his surroundings and what’s going on outside of his mental projections, but able to focus on the task at hand as if he’s MacGyver crossed with Carmen Sandiego. He’s also funny, which is good. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in this movie, and they lend an interesting balance to a story that could easily have gone astray and fallen into cheesy cliches.
There are nice little touches. Shirley MacLaine and Patton Oswalt make quick but effective appearances as Walter’s mother and an uber friendly eHarmony customer service agent respectively. And Penn’s performance as Sean is handled with love; his appearance borders on a cameo. But ultimately, the star is Stiller who, at 48, is as alive and energetic as a 10-year old discovering a theme park for the first time. His lust for adventure is infectious, and the journey he embarks upon is altogether touching, gorgeous, and completely satisfying.
Best Moment | When Walter takes the leap of faith onto the helicopter, to the sound of Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. Lovely.
Worst Moment | Nope.