Living life to the fullest is a novel concept primarily because of how infused it is and consumed it has become by fusty people who think climbing a big hill or championing your fears is the fullest they can get. When surrounded by those who have not quite reached for the sun, it is easy to minimalize expectations and take comfort in the smallest of achievements. That is what The Secret Life of Walter Mitty explores. A man whose greatest accomplishment is ringing up a dating agency and asking why his account isn’t working. It is because his profile has not been filled with experiences, and that leads Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller, who also directs this piece) to try new things to impress a new employee at his office. Big changes are pushed not by a willingness to better oneself, but to trick and convince someone to fall for them.
As problematic as that sounds, it is portrayed by Stiller in the usual, American way. Light and delightful, the attraction between Mitty and Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) made agonizingly obvious, to the point where Mitty’s mission to prove himself misses the point of it all. Shirley MacLaine as Mitty’s mother, Edna, provides nothing more than a light bit of work that shells out a plot detail or passionate advance for the eponymous sucker. Stiller, if anything, uses The Secret Life of Walter Mitty for calmer experimentations of character. Adam Scott takes on a role that doesn’t quite suit him, and he is all the better for it. Sean Penn shows up with that usual post-2000s mysterious nature and Stiller feels surprisingly comfortable as a newfound adrenalin junkie.
His direction does well in showing the anxiety of living everyday life as a constant rather than an ever-changing experience. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has no trouble in connecting with the everyday lifestyle of its eponymous character. His desire to connect with others is paralysed by the fear of taking the plunge, something that leads to his daydreams. Stiller makes for a convincing lead and creates that presence nicely. Why dream when you can do? It is not a unique angle to take nor is it one that feels best suited for some of the supporting characters, but the great hunt for the mysterious photographer that holds the key to a final issue of the magazine is a great red herring for the larger understanding of living life and breaking free of monotony.
Stiller manages to separate the likeable lead material with that of his skill for directing large set pieces and an adventure through the highs and lows of life around the world. He creates a piece that flagellates the time lost to mediocrity and embraces the experience gained of making mistakes and unique choices. Oddly inspired at times, not just because of how nicely it all pieces together and how simple the characters are, but because of what Stiller manages to do with them. These are people trying to make an active change in the face of adverse and awful surroundings. Credit to Stiller and the rest of the cast, they do a great job of making a simple story shine through a little better than it should.