The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Ben Stiller’s Dream of Life

This sweet romantic comedy about a moony guy and his dream girl is also a tribute to anyone who believes that a good job is worth doing well

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Wilson Webb/20th Century Fox

I should almost disqualify myself from reviewing The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The main character, played by Ben Stiller, works in midtown Manhattan’s Time + Life Building, my business home for 33 years. He is employed by a weekly Time Inc. news publication — Life, not TIME — which is about to be taken over and downsized; Time Inc. is to be spun off from its parent corporation, Time Warner, some time next year. Mitty’s job, now threatened, is to manage and care for the photographs of that great old publication; Mary Corliss ran the Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive for 34 years, and in 2002 she was abruptly let go, and that invaluable archive shuttered, after a four-and-a-half-month strike in which Mary played an important role. For my wife and me, watching this movie was like sitting through our surprise dual biography, so many of its images triggering memories of poignancy or pleasure.

(READ: Mary and the Case of the Missing Film Stills)
Mitty, directed by Stiller from Steve Conrad’s script, still could’ve stunk; and it has its occasional longueurs. But even people not named Corliss, people not involved in the endangered crafts of print journalism and photo curating, should be able to connect with the movie’s sweet and mournful tone. Anthony Lane, reviewing the film in The New Yorker, said it “keeps glancing backward, at the lost and the obsolete.” Exactly, and in a good way: Mitty pays tribute to people who cherish the past and, in the face of extinction, are devoted to preserving it.

Beyond that, Mitty is a lovely romantic comedy — the portrait of a man, nearly swallowed by the gulf between the world his lives in and the world he dreams of, who manages to bridge the two and to find Ms. Right in the workplace he cherishes.

The movie takes its title and little else from James Thurber‘s 2,079-word story published in The New Yorker 75 years ago next March. Thurber’s Mitty is a henpecked husband driving his wife to her weekly hair date in Waterbury, Conn. As his wife or a garage mechanic berates him, Mitty slips into five fantasy roles: a Navy Captain, a genius surgeon, a master criminal, a pilot on a suicide mission and, finally, a hero facing a firing squad. So meager and hopeless is Mitty’s life that his last daydream is of violent death.

(READ: James Thurber’s story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”)

The 1947 movie musical, starring Danny Kaye, took a half-step toward the new film. Mitty works as an editor of pulp-fiction magazines, whose lurid tales fuel his reveries; and a mysterious woman leads him into real-life exploits more extravagant than his wildest woolgatherings. Stiller’s Mitty also goes on adventures, though of his own choosing: to find the photograph that will be on the cover of Life’s final print edition. The expiring magazine is Walter’s secret Life.

At the start, though, he is just a schlub with a furtive crush on his new Life colleague Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig). Logging on to, he cannot even “wink” at Cheryl; the technology defeats him. Waiting for the train to take him downtown to work, Walter imagines a tenement building bursting into flames; like Superman, he vaults from the platform into the building to save Cheryl’s three-legged dog — and presents her with a furry prosthesis for the pet’s missing limb. At work, he materializes as a Spanish stud in a snow storm, wooing Cheryl with soothing words and a “poetry falcon”; and he sees himself as Benjamin Button, an infant with an old man’s face, cradled and nurtured by Cheryl.

Unfortunately for Walter, he also fantasizes talking sass to Ted (Adam Scott), the slimy, bearded, three-piece-suited dude whose job is to turn Life from a magazine to a digital domain in the speediest, most contemptible way possible. Ted thinks Walter, petrified in his dreams, is an idiot who is withholding that last cover picture, taken by revered photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). In fact, the negative is missing, and locating it becomes Walter’s mission. He and the audience must follow three pictorial clues left by Sean; they lead Walter to Greenland, Iceland, the Himalayas and back home.

(READ: a review of the 1947 The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by subscribing to TIME)

The Stiller and Kaye films twisted Thurber’s thesis: that modern man seeks freedom in dreams from nagging reality but can never escape. Serious fiction, including serious humorous fiction, paints the cage that imprisons humanity. Movies, in the 1940s or today, unlock the cell door; the screen is a wall showing the rich life that society may deny us. Stiller’s Mitty lives in that dream world. Early in the film, Walter may have little hope; yet he and Cheryl are destined to come together, if only because they have eyes of a magical blue — movie-star eyes. And when he goes on his world tour, this little man in a sedentary job turns out to be an expert bicyclist, runner and skateboarder. The movie has a lot of Walter exercising.

In development for nearly 20 years, the Mitty project was at one time or another to have starred Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, Mike Myers or Sacha Baron Cohen, and to have been directed by Ron Howard, Chuck Russell, Steven Spielberg, Gore Verbinski or Mark Waters. The final script by Conrad, who had written The Weather Man for Verbinski, became Stiller’s fifth feature film as director, after Reality Bites, The Cable Guy, the great Zoolander and Tropic Thunder.

(SEE: Derek Zoolander on one of the Top 10 fake TIME magazine covers)

An auteur with an acute visual touch, Stiller fills the wide screen artfully and playfully. In one shot, our attention is directed to Walter in the rear of the frame: he’s a blur, even as his own undeveloped life is a picture that has not yet come into focus. The cue for Walter’s daydreams is often a subtle shift into a sharp, old-fashioned Kodachrome color. Later, on his intercontinental journey, he sees a flock of birds that assemble Cheryl’s face in the sky. As he treks the Himalayas, his words — “Now at 18,000 feet my mind drifts like the snow” — are scrawled across the screen like an entry in an adventurer’s diary. Stiller also extracts appealing performances from the supporting cast: Shirley MacLaine as Walter’s mother, Patton Oswalt as his eHarmony contact, Adrian Martinez as his dark-room assistant and especially Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as a drunken bear of a helicopter pilot.

The most romantic notion held by this very dreamy film is the value of an important job done well. Roaming corridors filled with giant reproductions of old Life covers, Walter is haunted by Henry Luce’s mission statement in the first issue of Life, synopsized here as: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of Life.” And of Walter’s life, whether he is jumping from a helicopter into a turbulent sea infested with sharks or sitting in his photo archive trying to make a phantom picture come into focus.

(READ: What would Henry Luce make of the digital age?)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty proclaims that the past is worth treasuring, every bit as much as the fantasy future. Like Walter — and two people named Corliss — this touching movie elegy believes not just in the wonder of what might be but in the glory of what was.