Based on a 1939 short story by James Thurber, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is about a daydreamer. The original short story is plain and simple about a man trying to make his life more exciting in his imagination with the use of his mundane surroundings as the backdrop for his visions. The short story has been adapted multiple times for radio and film, most notably is the 1947 Technicolor production by Samuel Goldwyn (interestingly enough, the production company that produced this is still Samuel Goldwyn Films) starring Daniel Kaye as Walter Mitty and a 1982 Italian production called Sogni Mostruosamente Proibiti with different character names altogether, but the same premise. This is Ben Stiller's newest interpretation of James Thurber's story, which may be closer to the original source material (the Daniel Kaye film was designed mostly as a vehicle for the comedian) and expounds on the subject. It now concerns a man who learns to make his dreams a reality. Ben Stiller is no stranger to surrealistic comedy after having starred in now three Night at the Museum films and the dark satire, Permanent Midnight, which obviously interested Stiller in an updated version of this material.
What motivates Walter Mitty to dream is not exclusively boredom, but a deep desire to do something more interesting with his life akin to adventure stories, action movies and against-all-odds romance. The McGuffin (as Hitchcock would call it) to motivate a much bigger effort to dream is the cute-as-a-button Kristen Wiig playing Cheryl Melhoff. He has been interested in her for a long time, but lacks the courage to make direct contact thanks to the disconnected, telegraphesque advances of social media and dating websites. So instead of talking, he envisions humorous scenarios where they would eventually talk and quickly fall in love. Circumstances force Walter and Cheryl to finally meet in a less interesting scenario, but the central conflict of the plot is what really drives the film and less the love story. In a rather telling scenario, Life Magazine is about to publish its final issue (everything is moving to computers and less people are buying print) and the cover of the issue is meant to be in a roll of film snapped by eclectic photojournalist, Sean O'Connell played by the mammoth of intimidation, Sean Penn. However, no one knows where O'Connell exactly on the Earth except for pieces of clues to his previous locations. Cheryl makes the suggestion that Walter should set out to find him (in an effort to delay being laid off by Life) even if he means flying to Greenland, Iceland and deep into the Himalayas on the other side of the world to find him and bring back that photo in time. This sends him on the most unpredictable and fast-paced adventure of a lifetime.
His daydreams (which span from absurd fight sequences to uproarious dramatic entrances) motivate certain crazy stunts that Walter haphazardly attempts, but for the most part, Walter is truly enjoying himself as he chases down O'Connell. The film exhibits some very comedic visual gags including Walter's expertise in skateboarding, which is first shown in an out-of-focus shot behind Cheryl and her son where Walter spins, grinds and flips the board like a professional stuntman. Later in the film, Walter envisions Cheryl playing a guitar and singing a song for him; motivating Walter to keep going. This, by extension, gives Walter the idea to skateboard down a hilly highway in Iceland in order to catch up with O'Connell as well as using rocks on his hands to balance out his turns to keep from falling. A trick he only figured out from falling multiple times. Other sequences are meant to seem like dreams, but designed to be real (up to interpretation really) involving Walter being nearly swallowed whole by a great white shark as he treads in the Atlantic to catch up with a fishing boat and a volcanic eruption that looks like something out of Dante's Peak. Each dream and dream-becoming-reality scene plays out like a mini-movie complete with a beginning, suspenseful set up, a heart pumping middle and a very comical ending.
This is Ben Stiller's talent as a director here. He thinks of action sequences like very expensive, cinematic skits in the same manner as he demonstrated in Tropic Thunder, his previous directorial project. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is his most mature film to date with some of the most polished cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh, a believeable pace that takes its time thanks to editor Greg Hayden and a lovely, uplifting score by Theodore Shapiro. Mitty is a film meant to inspire and motivate everyone to follow their dreams and make them a true reality. A definite favorite from Ben Stiller as a director.