"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a sweet, melancholy movie starring two gifted comedic actors (Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig) who instead of going for silly moments or shallow laughs, perform with uncharacteristic and welcome restraint.
"Mitty" is, at its center, a romantic story focusing on two appealing characters, Walter Mitty (Stiller) and Cheryl Melhoff (Wiig), both shy and a bit withdrawn, who peer at each other across a canyon of hesitation.
Walter has worked for 16 years in the darkest part of the TIME-Life building in NYC where he is responsible for processing the photos that appear in Life magazine. He's the magazine's photo curator, collaborating with photographers worldwide.
But then he and the employees are abruptly called together and told that this once-iconic magazine is going digital, no more ink on paper, and most of them will likely be let go. One of the men sent in to dismantle the outfit and oversee the transition tells Walter that they will be using the famous photojournalist Sean O'Connell's (Sean Penn) negative, No. 25, for the final cover. The only problem is that Walter, having developed all of O'Connell's recent film (he still shoots on celluloid), can't find No. 25. His new boss, Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), a pompous jerk and wannabe alpha male, needs the negative, sooner than later.
Walter is desperate to find it. In order to do that, he must find O'Connell, who is somewhere in a remote part of the world photographing that most rare of species, the snow leopard.
The other problem Walter confronts, as you, the reader, likely know, since the film is very loosely based on James Thurber's 2,079-word story that appeared in the New Yorker almost 75 years ago, is that Walter has a tendency to "zone out." In other words, he slips into moments of fantasy-fiction that completely possess him. He creates brief, gripping vignettes wherein he imagines he is brave and heroic and not the tame, monochromatic worker drone he has been for most of his life.
But suddenly, with the encouragement of Cheryl, Walter leaves New York City and embarks on what proves to be a remarkable journey, beginning in Greenland where O'Connell was last seen. With determination, with tenacity, Walter is committed to doing whatever it takes to find O'Connell, and by extension, negative No. 25.
And so the games begin as Walter confronts situation after situation — traveling to Iceland, then Afghanistan, and finally the Himalayas. His journey proves to be dangerous, arduous and very real. And he begins to realize that he no longer needs to find the zone; he is living it. And live it he does. As Henry Luce, founder of Life, once wrote, "To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to take pleasure in seeing; to come to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of Life."
Stiller plays Walter as a quiet, serious, decent guy who has slipped ever so gradually into love with Cheryl but doesn't know quite how to do any more than watch her from afar. But what he does do, to his own surprise, is step out of character, way out of character, while discovering aspects of himself he never knew existed.
What causes "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" to resonate still, after all these decades, is that it speaks to audiences about their own lives. Its theme assumes that all of us possess a bit of Walter Mitty; we slip into a zone where we dream of a life lived differently, of choices made with outcomes far from the reality we know. Thurber knew this about human nature, and though he constructed a very short story about this truth, he struck a chord that captured the imaginations of readers at the time and for years after.
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" entertains and it engages. The photography is beautiful. Astonishing, really. And Wiig and Stiller share a genuine and gentle chemistry. For some, this film will surprise. For others, it will be what they expect and more.