One can't help but chuckle at the irony; the boring and insignificant Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) works at LIFE Magazine. It's an obvious, fairly easy gag for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but then again it's a fairly obvious film with a clear mandate to be a big, uplifting, charmer about taking life by the horns. Directed with ambition that occasionally exceeds Stiller's grasp, it's a film that's easy to mock but has enough good heart and whimsy to be just as easy to love.
Stiller dials down the goofy antics just a tad as the shy and forgettable Walter Mitty, a negative aspect manager at LIFE magazine, and yes the job is as boring as daily existence. When we first meet him he's staring at the EHarmony profile of Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a colleague he's been crushing on but never had the stones to talk to. Does he even have the guts to electronically reach out and make the first move? At times of indecision and great anxiety, Walter's vivid imagination takes over, imagining himself to be more confident, more adventurous, manlier, more EVERYTHING than he is in reality.
Stiller balances Walter's surreal escapism with a dose of cold hard truth; the print world is dying and LIFE magazine is going digital, firing most of the staff and putting his own job in jeopardy. The villainous corporate stooge designed to oversee the change (Adam Scott, in a ridiculous beard that screams "bad guy") doesn't see much value in Walter's job developing photos, but that changes when renowned photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn, enigmatic as ever) sends in an image that is said to capture the very essence of the magazine. The only problem is that Walter can't find this life-changing photo, and in an effort to save his job must break out of his shell and start living.
In his fifth directorial effort, Stiller shows real signs of growth, and with the aid of cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh the film has a dreamlike malleability not unlike the work of Michel Gondry. In one stirring scene a flock of birds circle to form Cheryl's loving face; in another his breathy words are scrawled across the screen like a journal log, capturing his newfound explorer's spirit. As Walter's journey takes him from Greenland to Iceland and the highest mountains of the Himalayas, the gap between the life he leads and the one he desires begins to close.
As Stiller indulges visually, he shows a total lack of restraint elsewhere in ways that hurt the film tremendously. Embarrassing levels of distracting product placement too often resemble one long commercial ad, and much of Walter's trek is condensed through song-heavy montage. We can't help but wish there was a little more magic on display in his magical adventure. Patton Oswalt voices a pestering EHarmony rep who is constantly calling in while Walter expands his horizons, and their conversations don't really need anything other than to emphasize what we can see with our own eyes. Despite these problems, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an earnest and sincere story about turning one's dreams into positive action. As other movies this Christmas seem to be about pushing the limits of good taste, Ben Stiller is delivering the one true feel-good movie of the season.