The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the latest film by Ben Stiller both in front of and behind the camera, is a feel-good movie. Part drama, part comedy. I know. Historically, feel good films get a lot of criticism and justly so. They have to appeal to the widest audience possible, and as a consequence few filmmakers have the gusto to take any risks in changing up the format. In other words, Hollywood manufactures them as products of generic storytelling with key-timed moments of loss, success, and redemption to act as a fireplace for the soul in the cold wastes of winter. But Walter Mitty, both the film and the character the film is named after, is different. Imagine loved indie filmmaker Spike Jonze (Being John Malcovich, Adaptation) fusing with these classic trends, delivering a slightly otherworldly take on this holiday genre. The music too captures a quiet, ethereal atmosphere with chimes and soft sounds right out of a Sigur Rós album. The color palette is frequently muted with blues and whites, with artful framing that enhances a sense of indirect sentiment, as though emotion and adventure hang just around the corner. It's a distinct film for the holiday season, and although there's numerous diversions to large-scale action scenes (that might not all work), as a film set out to inspire and amaze with the power of the human spirit, audiences will love it.
Walter Mitty is in trouble. Walter's a photo archivist and editor for Life Magazine, who, along with his sister, are in a period of arrested development. His sister, played amusingly by Kathryn Hahn, wants to become an actress, and to little success. She helps audiences understand Walter from the start. She's a loud, big personality, and the contrast communicates everything Walter isn't. We see him as a stuffy workman leading an empty, routine life, recalling the joke about the office worker grind sucking the life out of employees until they become zombies. He barely talks and zones out a lot. This is a problem, because there's a girl. She's played by the lovely Kristen Wiig, and she surely would have no interest in such a lame, lifeless worker. Making matters worse, Life Magazine has been bought out and in the process of transitioning to a dot com format under Parks and Recs star Adam Scott, playing a sneering corporate boss who's frequently shown to be an idiot. A famous photographer who has worked with Life Magazine numerous times (a brief but memorable appearance by Sean Penn) sent a reel of photographs with one chosen to be the cover of the next issue, one we learn will be the last ever. But it isn't there, and it's Walter's job to find it or he's out. Here is where the adventure begins, and it is sensational.
Before getting to that, it's important to understand how The Secret Life of Walter Mitty works. The film is rarely subtle, but it has no reason to be. "The Time and Life Building" reads the building's outside placard, which is one of the first of many uses of comic irony, since those who work in this building seem to have neither. Walter works in an archive and photo lab for Life Magazine, which is framed mostly in shadow. It's a cave he feels comfortable in and one of his few viable outlets for his eruptive creativity. Television shows like House or E.R. have shown cases of extreme brain swelling called intracranial pressure, and unless a doctor punctures the brain with a drill to allow pressure to escape, pressure continues to build to severe levels. Walter is the same way, only instead of intracranial pressure, it's his imagination. Without a release, we see it frequently suffocate his senses as he's sucked up from reality and becomes the principal character in daydreamscapes where he can tell off his sententious boss, rescue dogs out of burning buildings set to explode, or engage in superhero movie brawls. We, everyone, share in these types of fantasies, and it's a clever invitation to sympathize and eventually fight for Walter to break out of his bubble. When they become closer or in reality, those moments feel earned and thus unapologetically hopeful, sure to whisk most audiences off their feet. My own were rarely on the ground. The trouble is, these diversions don't always work, and sometimes disrupt the narrative so negatively I had a hard time finding my way back into the hearts and minds of the characters.
Really, the film is made up of a few almost contradictory parts that never quite resolve. These oppositions are deliberate, evidenced by hard cuts between the daydreams and returning to Walter's actual life that stress the difference between the two. However, the tonal shifts aren't always becoming, and sometimes serve as disruptive distractions that come off as attempts to keep a big audience happy. The use of popular music also calls unnecessary attention to itself, though I'm always a sucker for any use of David Bowie. Much of the usual Ben Stiller comedy gets laughs, but too much of it clashes with the delicate tone of the overriding film. And, although amazingly photographed by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, the film's many indulgences into the fantastic venture is just a tad too over the top. It's part of the cheeky charm intended by Ben Stiller, but it seemed as though what he really wanted to make was art house dramedy but didn't share the courage of the title character to do it. Many of these action moments could have stayed, albeit toned down, and used in a more tonally appropriate manner and it wouldn't have dampened the thrills one bit. In fact, it would have made those moments every bit more special for the audience as well as Walter. Walter Mitty the film couldn't nearly match the bravery of Walter Mitty the character, but the charm perseveres. You're guaranteed to leave the theater feeling energized, maybe even euphoric, and smiling.