There's a much darker, more interesting movie lurking somewhere inside The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The pieces are all there: a lonely protagonist with an active imagination, the soul-crushing corporate setting, an attraction to a co-worker that borders on obsession. But the version we're presented is a much more buoyant, joyful movie. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Stiller directs himself in the title role, playing a sad-sack photo developer so wrapped up in his fantasies that he rarely sees the rewarding life right in front of him. When a package containing a rare photograph from an elusive photographer (Sean Penn) arrives missing its prize contents, Walter goes on a transcontinental search for it.
But he needed a little push. Kristen Wiig plays his co-worker, a manic pixie dream single mom. She encourages him to get outside his own head and into the real world. The scene where his vision becomes reality "” set to Arcade Fire's "Wake Up" "” might just be my favorite of the year.
The film is filled with little special moments, mostly set to a great soundtrack. It's not manipulative, but it illuminates that the movie as a whole is a pretty thin framework. Again, there's nothing wrong with that because it's filled with humorous, good-natured episodes and absolutely stunning cinematography.
These vignettes, set in Greenland, Iceland and the Himalayas, are linked by hilarious phone conversations between Stiller and Patton Oswalt, a dating website technician. They attempt to fill in some of the gaps in the story. They don't get all the way, but any time Patton Oswalt is involved in anything, it's an automatic improvement.
Despite sacrificing a richer, more rewarding story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty remains a frequently inspiring little film, one thrillingly devoid of any cynicism. It wasn't what I expected, but in some ways it's better than what I thought I wanted. And isn't that how life turns out so often?