‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ movie review

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the second adaptation from James Thurber’s 1939 short-story, follows affable everyman Walter Mitty. Walter is an average guy, working in the photography department of a big American magazine called LIFE (read: TIME). To escape the loneliness and mundanity of his existence, Walter frequently loses himself in daydreams and fantasies, rescuing cats from burning buildings and having epic, city-spanning super-hero battles with his odious new boss (Adam Scott). Most of these fantasies end up with Walter winning the affections of Kristen Wiig’s Cheryl, who works in the same building.

With the print magazine is being shut-down in favour of an online-only existence, Walter is sent the perfect cover-photo for the final issue by renowned photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). But the crucial photograph happens to be missing, and so Walter sets out on a globe-trotting mission to track it down.

Ben Stiller has directed films before, but this is simultaneously his most low-key and also spectacular effort to date. Stiller’s accomplished direction infuses the story with a real sense of wonder as Walter’s journey takes him to Greenland, to the middle of the ocean, past erupting volcanoes and high into the Himalayas. The scenery is gorgeous, but Stiller never lets it upstage his hero. The cinematography of Stuart Dryburgh and the score by Theodore Shapiro carry you along on the earthy, grounded, and yet curiously magical journey.

As Walter, Stiller is in far more restrained form than usual. Walter Mitty, unlike many of Stiller’s well known creations, is very recognisable as a human being. He’s endearingly sweet, and his wild adventures stay just the right side of implausible. As his quest progresses, his dips into fantasy become less and less frequent, and suddenly the things he once would have had to imagine, he’s doing for real. The world in his head is no longer necessary, as he finds himself neck-deep in the one outside it, and the man whose eHarmony “Things I’ve Done” section is heartbreakingly empty finds that he might just be ready for it.

As the object of his affections, Kristen Wiig is as lovely as you would expect, at one point delivering a heart-melting rendition of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ in Walter’s mind. The cast also features Patton Oswalt as an eHarmony worker trying to coax some life into his hapless charge, but the stand-out sequence is with Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as a hilariously inebriated helicopter pilot in Greenland. Secret Life isn’t often laugh-out-loud funny (that isn’t really its aim), but Olafsson will have you in stitches during his short appearance.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a wonderful film; the sort of piece that will leave you smiling and uplifted, with a warm glow deep down inside. It’s not schmaltzy or saccharine, but it manages to hit those notes all the same. It’s not a comedy, but it is funny. It’s a film full of spirit and hope. Ben Stiller is excellent as the titular hero, and Walter’s journey from an empty existence to fulfilment is entirely believable, while he also directs with real verve and deftness.

A touching coming-of-middle-age story that boasts wonderful performances, stunning scenery and a likable lead, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an unexpected, low-key little treat. Ben Stiller should play for subtle more often.

Released in UK cinemas on 26 December 2013.