Ben Stiller as Walter Mitty
Kristen Wiig as Cheryl Melhoff
Shirley MacLaine as Edna Mitty
Adam Scott as Ted Hendricks
Adrian Martinez as Hernando
Kathryn Hahn as Odessa Mitty
Sean Penn as Sean O'Connell
Patton Oswalt as Todd Maher
Olafur Darri Olafsson as Helicopter Pilot
Porhallur Sigurosson as Trawler Captain
Directed by Ben Stiller
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" wants to be a modern fable and director/star Ben Stiller works overtime to carry that goal off, managing the difficult feat of tugging on heartstrings without yanking on them, though the innate silliness of the fantasy elements threatens to cover up how good the film really is.
Less of an adaptation of James Thurber's classic story and more of a re-imagining of the classic Danny Kaye film, this version of Walter Mitty (Stiller) runs the negatives department for storied Life Magazine. He's less henpecked by marriage--he is actually looking for the future Mrs. Mitty--than by life in general, which he frequently runs away from into his fervent imagination. Or at least he did until the hunt for the missing negative, which will mark the final cover of Life, sends him around the world on a very real adventure for once.
This is easily the best directed of any Stiller's efforts especially when he stops to take in quiet moments, be they a man starring at a computer screen or a serene Icelandic lake; he knows exactly the effect he is trying to achieve and hits his mark more often than not. He has spent so much of his time on over-the-top comedic productions (and those skills do make their appearance here), it's easy to forget how good he can be at making the most of a moment which is what a story like this really needs. As day-dreamer schlub stories go, it's not terribly original, it's following a playbook that must be 50 years old by this point, leaving it almost entirely in Stiller's hands to keep it from feeling like the cliché it sort of is. And he mostly does it.
It's the 'mostly' that keeps "Mitty" from working as well as it could. The freedom to get inside Walter's head inserts a lot of childishness into a grown-up film early on, creating tonal whiplash and masking a lot of what really works. There's no doubt that Stiller loves a good, ridiculous comedy set up and portraying the exaggerated characters that fill them--that is basically the point of "Zoolander" after all--and by itself it can work just fine. Smashed up against the subdued realism of Walter's actual life (minus the odd Hollywood touches like the eHarmony rep who can reach him anywhere), the mood whiplash, though intentional, works against quietness and will easily pull you out of the film. Fortunately most of that material is loaded at the front and the real world adventure of Walter's quest to find mercurial photographer Sean O'Connell (Penn) is never so cartoony. That includes a fight with a drunken helicopter pilot in Greenland and a dive into shark-infested waters.
Intentional or not, it feels that Stiller and his crew are much more in tune with those sort of adventures than elevator fights with Walter's d*ckish boss (Adam Scott); it certainly shows on the screen. This "Mitty" is visually resplendent with some of the best work of cameraman Stuart Dryburgh's ("The Piano") career amid eye-catching landscapes. It also boasts the best performance Stiller has ever managed, maintaining Walter's unassuming humbleness even as his real life begins to live up to some of his dreams. No one else is quite up to it, but then no one else has to be. Kristen Wiig's Cheryl doesn't get to do much more than sing a song - everyone but Scott is busy playing the straight man to Stiller. But it works.
If you really like the incredulous fantasy pieces at the beginning, you may be disappointed as they fall away in the face of the real thing, but focus on what really matters, on "Mitty's" heart, and you'll come away with something worth spending some time on.