Based on James Thurber’s 1939 short story (in the loosest possible sense), The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty has arrived just in time to provide a burst of seasonal goodwill and a little end of year perspective.The plot is at once simple - the end of Walter’s longtime employer, Life magazine - and strangely labyrinthine, as our eponymous hero subsequently hops from continent to continent in search of the final Life cover photo, and a life.
A long gestating passion project for director and leading man Ben Stiller, I had my doubts about how one of cinema’s grumpiest misanthropes would fare as a suppressed everyman. But as it turned out, Stiller, alongside Kristen Wiig as the object of Walter’s affection Cheryl Melhoff, makes for a pleasantly ordinary hero.
This is a far greater accomplishment than it might appear. The film’s USP initially seems to be Walter’s surreal flights of fancy, from dog rescuing superheroics to a city wide tussle with the management consultant (a perfectly dickish Adam Scott) sent in to orchestrate the magazine’s closure.
But the core of the film - in amongst the umpteen metaphors that could be drawn - is one, simple lesson: carpe diem. It’s such a cliché that Mitty could so easily have been a trite, preachy, saccharine mess.
It is inestimably aided in this by Stiller’s deceptively understated direction, Stuart Dryburgh’s uniformly gorgeous cinematography and a beautifully apposite soundtrack that should have even the most cynical desk jockey nursing a lump in their throat by the time the credits roll.
The crisp visuals, ranging from over the top set pieces to sweeping shots of the Arctic Circle are more than enough to satisfy even this jaded cinema goer, as CGI blends seamlessly into sparse yet oddly appealing landscapes. Even the urban or office scenes are strangely poetic/eye catching as ‘fact’ bleeds into the fiction of Walter’s rampant imagination, peppering the movie’s landscape with visual cues (a text message appearing out of a crumbling mountainside) and whimsical asides (Walter’s make believe Life cover appearing alongside real covers).
But the master stroke is to have Stiller’s Walter lurk in each of us - the road not travelled, the risk not taken - which prevents its bitter/sweet ending narrowly avoid collapsing into a feelgood mush.
Sure, it’s a touch overlong, and there will be some (perhaps many) for whom it is altogether too schmaltzy, while its Christmas release date almost guarantees that it’ll be buried by more po-faced Oscar contenders and more brailness also-ran B-movies.
But for my money, the warmth and sincerity that runs through The Secret Life of Walter Mitty makes for modest but redemptive movie, one that’s life affirming in a gratifyingly unshowy way - sure, life may be painful and unpredictable but hey, it’s never too late. It’s just about enough to guarantee that Walter Mitty's secret life is ineluctably, inexplicably more than the sum of its refreshingly ordinary parts.