Ben Stiller’s new version of THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is quite simply sublime.
Life is what it’s all about for Walter Mitty. That’s because his life is his job at the famous Life magazine, as an imposingly titled negative asset manager (in real terms, a photo archivist). That and daydreaming, or ‘zoning out’ as his family call it – this is really THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY where he imagines himself in all manner of heroic situations, mostly to impress the girl he can’t stop thinking about – a new arrival at his office, Cheryl.
We’re introduced to his secret world spectacularly at the beginning of the film when on his way to work and in the middle of a phone call, Walter jumps across a rooftop into a building to save a small dog, as the building is about to explode from a gas leak. Amazing and far from ordinary if it were true but in reality, by going on that daydream, it just means he’s missed his train. The phone call he’s on, that initially seems just a passing thing, becomes a wonderful running theme in the film – Walter’s calling the dating website that he’s tentatively joined so that he can hopefully begin the process of wooing Cheryl and the helpful customer service person Todd, who’s taken the call, resolves to help Walter improve his profile in order to attract the girl of his dreams.
So far, so promising for Walter, played so completely winningly by Ben Stiller at his most delicately understated. Except that events take a downward turn when he arrives at his office, only to be confronted by the obnoxious Ted Hendricks (a viciously fun, Machiavellian performance from Adam Scott) who has been appointed to close Life magazine and turn it into Life online. Walter and his co-worker Hernando (the adorable Adrian Martinez) begin to realise that their little world in the basement, where they lovingly gather and process all the images for the magazine, is very soon to be no more.
But the arrival of a package for Walter, containing a film for processing from the mysterious and world-renowned photographer Sean O’Connell (played beautifully with all his incomparable maverick style by Sean Penn) could mean that their last job for the magazine is their most interesting one yet. Walter is the only person whom O’Connell trusts with his work and when one of the negatives – the one describes modestly by its owner as the finest photograph he’s ever taken – is not to be found, Walter dreams that O’Connell is asking him to make this quest to find the photo and so Walter decides he’ll do it, so the magazine can end its extraordinary history with one more iconic issue. He tells Cheryl (spot on casting here of ‘girl of the moment’ Kristen Wiig, who’s terrific) of his seemingly impossible task and she’s intrigued – both by what Walter is going to do and by him – and she vows to help in any way she can. Of course, locating O’Connell is going to be far from easy, particularly as he was last heard of from Greenland but off Walter goes in search of him and so begins his new, real life.
I think it was about at this point that the tears started to trickle slowly down my face. That was it – I was totally in the movie’s thrall. Stiller directs as well as playing Walter and this is by far the most accomplished movie he’s done as director. He’s produced some fantastic comedies but the way he assembles every frame and crafts every moment in this film is astonishingly moving and the brilliance just keeps coming – from tremendous images courtesy of director of photography Stuart Dryburgh, to a great soundtrack by Theodore Shapiro. Quite simply, the wave of emotion that hit me whilst watching this film was immense and at times, all I wanted to do was blub, big-time.
I found it the most wonderfully affecting story, it just got to me and the only other two occasions in recent memory when I’ve had this kind of a reaction to a film were The Artist and before that, The Bridges of Madison County. I know I’m a sucker for a romantic tale but it was more than that. James Thurber’s short story had been previously made into a movie – the famous 1947 version with Danny Kaye – which I’d seen at some moment on TV as a child but the cleverness of Steve Conrad’s screenplay, bringing the whole thing up to date whilst also making a very timely commentary on how online media continues to dominate our lives while the printed word and old methods of communication die out, was splendid.
As Walter’s adventure takes him to Greenland, then Iceland, back to New York and then to Afghanistan, Cheryl is with him every step of the way – either by phone to pass on information and find out the latest update, or by Walter dreaming of her being there with him. And with Todd’s help, from his similarly regular phone calls, Walter begins to grow in confidence. When he finally returns home, via a hilarious stop-over in Los Angeles where he finally meets Todd (a great cameo from Patton Oswalt) in Cinnabon – nice touch! – he realises it could be that his mother Edna (fantastically played by Shirley MacLaine as always) has the final piece of the puzzle.
“There’s no place like home” said Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and there are times in this where the colours feel a little brighter, the images a little sharper than real life, as we experience another kind of fairy tale where I felt that (like Walter) he had to journey across the world before coming back to understand who really he is and how he’s as unique to the people closest to him, as everyone is to the people in their lives.
Before I blub again as I’m writing this, I’ll just say bravo Ben Stiller! What a sublime piece of film-making you’ve brought us, a movie that touches the heart and which I’ll remember for a very long time.