Daydream believer

Rated 5.0

The dream world and reality progressively and beautifully blend in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the latest from director Ben Stiller.

Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad based the film, just a little bit, on the short story by James Thurber about a man prone to elaborate daydreams. He uses that story as a springboard to something altogether new, and surprisingly intimate. This is essentially a $90 million art film that maintains a nice indie sensibility to go with its moments of grand spectacle.

Stiller, in one of his best performances, plays the title character, an introverted man holding down a job handling photo negatives for Life magazine. After a vivid daydream where he saves a cat from a building moments before it explodes, he wanders into Life’s lobby late, and finds out the magazine will be ceasing publication and going to an online format (Incidentally, this already happened a long time ago in the real world. Life has been special-issue-only for years, and doesn’t even exist as its own full website anymore.)

So Walter, in the digital age, is quickly becoming an unnecessary entity at his job. To add insult to injury, he’s getting harassed by Ted (a sinisterly funny Adam Scott), the super douche tasked with transitioning the magazine to an online format. Ted mocks him in front of fellow employees and throws paper clips as Walter daydreams about co-worker Cheryl (a sweetly charming Kristen Wiig) by the office coffee machine.

Walter imagines epic battles with Ted involving their blasting out of the side of the office building and ultimately concrete surfing on the streets of New York City—all while battling over a Stretch Armstrong doll.

Crisis looms when a negative from star photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), the negative meant for the magazine’s final cover, goes missing. Walter, with help from Cheryl, springs into action on a quest to find the negative that leads him through Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan and the Himalayas. Along the way, he reignites former passions, like skateboarding and hiking, and those daydreams become more and more unnecessary.

This movie qualifies as a nice love letter to Kristen Wiig, who represents possibly the coolest love interest on screen this past year. Her Cheryl has a nice accessibility to go along with her beauty and humor, and it’s no wonder Walter has a crush. Stiller and Wiig have a genuine chemistry together, with Wiig’s performance completely absent of her more zany comic tendencies.

Penn is downright incredible in his one scene, of which I will give away no details. Patton Oswalt shines as an eHarmony consultant so friendly he could only be found in a movie. Shirley MacLaine is mighty convincing as Walter’s mom, no easy feat considering that many of us are aware that Stiller’s mom is Anne Meara.

There’s nothing forced in Stiller’s depiction of Walter coming out of his shell, and nothing jarring about the transition. As we learn some of the reasons Walter lapsed into a life of daydreaming rather than dream fulfillment, Walter becomes a complete character rather than that fleeting representation in Thurber’s story.

Stiller’s performance goes between subtle and extremes, with most of those extremes happening in the daydreams. In the quieter moments, it’s the sort of well-modulated performance that ranks with his work in The Royal Tenenbaums and Flirting with Disaster. He’s also a pretty good skateboarder (that’s him riding at quite high speeds down a mountain road in Iceland).

Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh deserves major kudos for his always stunning work here, whether his lens is on Stiller in an elevator or Stiller jumping into a stormy Atlantic Ocean. Also notable is the soundtrack, with a roster of artists like David Bowie, Of Monsters and Men, and Arcade Fire that truly bolsters the viewing experience.

The message that Stiller delivers with his film is an obvious one: Many of our daydreams are just a hop, skip and skateboard away from being realities. With a simple message elegantly and majestically portrayed, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty winds up being one of 2013’s best movies.