"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," a 1939 short story by the humorist James Thurber, has spawned various adaptations over the years, including a 1947 film starring Danny Kaye and a handful of theatrical productions. The tale of a hapless dreamer who escapes the bland everydayness of his routines with spectacular daydreams of heroism, including feats as fighter pilot and a life-saving surgeon, the Thurber story is a rather blunt satire of a culture that prizes individualism to the point that heroism is something to be attained only through grand actions. Unfortunately, the very premise and form of the original story, which mostly takes place inside Walter Mitty's head, has created some issues for filmmakers who have tried to adapt it for the screen. The current production was considered and abandoned by such Hollywood luminaries as Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard.
The source material, however, seems ideal for a filmmaker like Ben Stiller. In films such as "Zoolander" and "Tropic Thunder," Stiller has satirized many elements of contemporary culture and plumbed deeper into the banality and the consequent ennui behind some of contemporary culture's most intense obsessions: beauty and the imaginative worlds of film. If Stiller films have a trademark aside from their often blunt social and cultural satire, it is how difficult they are to label, often employing elements from a variety of film genres including romantic comedy, mockumentary, thriller, farce, action, and serious drama. This seems partly a purposeful tactic on Stiller's part, but it's also more in tune with his nature as both an actor and a director. Unlike the overprepared, insanely committed method actors who are lampooned in "Tropic Thunder," Stiller is an artist more at home with developing and growing from the process of creation rather than dominating it. Thus, the conventions of film genres are somewhat beside the point for this director.
These tendencies are evident in his new film, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," which Stiller both directs and stars in. Although Stiller is older now and his generation's issues have become somewhat more complex after 9/11, Stiller's hapless Walter, or at least the Walter of the first half of the film, could easily fit into the group of slackers chronicled in "Reality Bites" almost twenty years ago. That said, the impotence of the post-college years and the one that seems to possess Stiller's middle-aged Walter Mitty are very different.
Stiller is a master at portraying the kind of comedy that is rooted in embarrassment and shame—think of the zipper scene in "There's Something about Mary." In "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," Stiller pushes shame into the territory of existential humiliation, setting the stage both for the audience's sympathy and for the second half of the film, which veers from the source material as well as from the genre of dark social comedy established in the first half.
It will be interesting to see how audiences react to this double departure. Some critics have noted that while ambitious, the second half of the movie abandons the subtle comedic drama established in the first half. In the second half, Walter Mitty, mostly to win the love of his coworker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), sets off on an adventure that surpasses anything he has imagined in his daydreams. This quest eventually allows him to become something he could have never become in his fantasies: an individual more fully engaged with the world and others.
If this sounds a little too pat and schematic to produce either engaging drama or comedy, it is perhaps because the summary cannot be told with the comic skepticism that seems to be part of Stiller's inside joke. Stiller wants to create a romantic comedy and a feel-good inspirational movie that roundly satirizes the exaggerated conventions of both forms. Part of the brilliant comedy in the second half of the film is Walter Mitty's impossible transformation from an inconsequential cockroach of a character to one at home with trekking the Himalayas.
What causes this amazing transformation? Partly, it is the desire to be noticed by the coworker he has fallen for, but the stated purpose of the quest is to find a lost photo negative that may or may not save the magazine he works for, which is called "Life." If moviegoers misinterpret this joke, which sets up Walter Mitty's mock adventure of the second half of the film, they may very well not appreciate the comic absurdity that ensues or value Stiller's genius in satirizing the very thing he has created.