It’s tempting to give Ben Stiller an “A” for effort on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. His fifth time behind the camera is easily his most ambitious and exhibits occasional signs of greatness. It’s also wildly inconsistent and seems to be shooting for a level of prestige that the material only occasionally touches and its creators aren’t quite capable of delivering. That this may be the best Stiller can do makes the unevenness tragic on a certain level, but at the same time enough growth is evident that he may simply be headed in the right direction.
An expansion of the James Thurber short story, Stiller stars at the eponymous negative assets manager at Life magazine, whose various departments are a marvel of production design. Though gifted at daydreaming, which leads to numerous fantastical moments, he’s done so little with his years that he’s unable to put much on something as basic as his eHarmony profile. It’s from this disconnect between the real and imagined that the film draws its chief conflict, but in melding them together Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad often struggle. The zone-out sequences all have their appeal, yet transitioning back to reality is somewhat clunky and isn’t helped by the cruel, repetitive insults from Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), a heartless suit in charge of Life’s transition to a solely digital publication.
Clashes between Ted’s cold techy ways and the analog nostalgia that Walter symbolizes set up some interesting grand concepts while our hero’s boyish crush on cute coworker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig, brightening each scene) grants him further appeal. All that’s needed is a story beyond potential love and job loss and it soon arrives when a negative taken by elusive legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) for the magazine’s last cover is nowhere to be found. While it’s silly for everyone (including himself) to blame Walter for losing something he’s never actually seen and appears purposefully removed by someone else, that’s how thing play out and, fortified by Life’s call-to-action motto, he sets off to track down this maguffin.
On these treks through Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan, the mix of ups and downs continue. For each beautifully believable scene like the goosebump-inducing call to courage set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” there’s another that plays out too cooly and easily considering Walter’s lack of life experience. Considering these incongruences and the prominence of his imagination, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty works best when viewed as a fable, though a somewhat creaky one at that. Still, there’s plenty to like (including a brilliant late cameo) and in an age where crassness is king, the fact that it’s all accomplished under a PG rating is commendable.
Rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.