In Afghanistan, on the snow-covered Himalayan Mountains grizzled and world-wise Sean O’Connell played by Sean Penn gazes at his coveted photo moment. Sean says that all he wants is to be “in the moment”.
Sean Penn is selfless gravitas at this moment as he confides in Ben Stiller’s exasperated mild-mannered Walter Mitty, who literally travels to the ends of the earth to track down the maverick old-school legendary photographer. Be in the moment and be present in life–are the eloquently poignant lyrics of Director Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”.
I loved the James Thurber short story which Writer Steve Conrad based his update. Walter is the chronic daydreamer, an escape from his ordinary life. At times Director Stiller and Writer Conrad teeter capriciously all over the narrative landscape including a hysterical and touching eHarmony thread. Granted they humorously frame Walter’s “zone outs” from reality. One obscure gag from “Benjamin Button” is nearly wacky enough to spiral into incoherence—fortunately, it does not.
There is an amazing upside. In a joyously freeing scene, Walter skateboards down the winding roads of Iceland; spectacularly filmed by Stuart Dryburgh. Kristen Wiig in a touching turn goes unplugged with David Bowie’s “Ground Control to Major Tom”. All the curious rifting I think is forgivable for its noble purpose. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” celebrates being present in life. No one is alone.
Ben Stiller is quietly heroic navigating Walter’s transformation into the unknown. His blank stares as Walter “zones out” touch the depth of our own vulnerabilities. He is bold, funny, and aware. Walter Mitty (Stiller) is a photo negative archiver at Life Magazine. He has given up on his dreams, taking on the financial and emotional stress of his aging Mom brilliantly played by Shirley MacLaine, about to enter a care home. His sister is flighty wannabe actress Odessa (good Kathryn Hahn), dreams of playing Rizzo in “Grease”. Walter joined eHarmony so he can date Cheryl Melhof (Kristen Wiig), who works in the same office. Wiig charms as Cheryl, the quirky single Mom of skateboarder son Rich (Marcus Antturi). Cheryl is smart and pretty and is actually interested in Walter, if he had a clue.
Life Magazine has been taken over by another Company. To transition over to an online magazine, Ted Hendricks (brilliantly arrogant Adam Scott) heads the restructuring corporate team. Ted is a major jerk— arrogant and not as smart as he thinks. Walter is the sole personal contact of legendary cover photographer Sean O’Connell (Penn). When Sean’s photo negative for the cover of Life’s last newsstand issue is missing, Ted focuses his attention on Walter. Sean claims this is his best photo of his career. Walter must find the missing negative to save his job and possibly win over Cheryl. Working with Cheryl, Walter starts his search in Greenland. Somehow diverting to Iceland, Walter calls Cheryl from a Papa John’s Pizza there. It all ties in.
Ben Stiller is inspiring, as “Walter Mitty” amazingly never takes itself seriously. The movie joyfully celebrates life as illustrated by the beautiful soccer game with Walter and Sean in the Afghan mountains. Stiller makes us pull for Walter as he reclaims his power. Kristen Wiig is funny and compassionate as Walter’s gentle muse. She is surprising. Sean Penn is awesome as Sean O’Connell, strong and whimsically wise. Shirley MacLaine anchors in her Mother’s unconditional love for her son Walter, without many words. Patton Oswald nearly steals the movie as Todd, the eHarmony profile adviser. Warm and hysterical he punctuates Walter’s transformational journey. Stiller reminds us with humor and soul that Life is wonderful when we are present in it.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is funny and beautiful.