In Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, Jack Black plays a comic actor from a Nutty Professor-like franchise hoping to be taken seriously via his part in a movie about the Vietnam War. It would be easy enough to draw parallels, however sketchy, to Stiller himself, whose past Christmas season releases have included A Night at the Museum and Meet the Fockers, and who now returns directing and starring in a surprisingly serious version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. But Stiller has been periodically going serious for his entire career, and in the opening moments of Walter Mitty, the lack of shtick — which, to be clear, Stiller can soldier through like a pro — feels like a ray of sunshine, even as the movie’s mood stays melancholic.
The shtick doesn’t ever really invade, but the feeling of relief still doesn’t last. As a director, Stiller has gravitated toward satire, whether broad (Thunder or Zoolander), generational (Reality Bites), or pitch-black (The Cable Guy). Here, he favors a tone of aching sincerity. The movie has enough ringers in its supporting cast — Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Patton Oswalt — to try for a few wan laughs, but this incarnation of Walter Mitty, the daydreaming character from a cutesy James Thurber short story, isn’t really a comic one. Unlike the married man with his head in the clouds of Thurber’s story, this Mitty is middle-aged and single: a quiet man spending his days at the waning LIFE magazine (revived in this film only to be re-euthanized for the story) prepping photos sent in by the more adventurous likes of Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), globetrotting photojournalist.
As before, Walter escapes into his fantasy life, now often constructed around his coworker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), and enabled by modern special effects. Stiller doesn’t indulge too heavily in CG bombast, though; instead, he uses his eye for parody to mount goofs on superhero action and, in one bizarre but funny sequence, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (it feels like Stiller’s been waiting to riff on that movie for several years). But a movie about fantasies doesn’t have much drama, so Stiller goads Walter into some real-life adventure, an interesting prospect the movie smothers with excessive feeling.
When Walter first heads to the airport for an impromptu trip to find a missing photo negative, the soundtrack surges with imitation Arcade Fire indie rock, and the sequence works: a little shameless, maybe, but sweetly emotional. Later, he imagines Wiig serenading him with “Space Oddity” as he makes another leap of faith, merging his dreams with reality. But as the movie returns to these tricks again and again — tastefully surging music, leaps of faith, beautiful scenery — and Walter’s adventures get more outlandish, I started to wonder if he was in a prolonged death-bed reverie.
It probably won’t spoil matters to say that he’s not, though it may spoil any illusion that I’m a decent person when I confess that sometimes I wished he was. Not out of spite towards the movie, mind you, but out of hope that it would continue to bend reality in tricky and emotional ways, rather than sending Walter on a postcard-ready midlife crisis jaunt that looks suspiciously like a wealthy, successful man’s idea of Real Living. Walter jets off to remote countries, interacts with quirky strangers, achieves quasi-spiritual renewal, and does other stuff that Stiller’s earlier films would have been more inclined to satirize than celebrate.
For this material to work, it would have to be a little funnier, or more inventive, or at very least not include depressing product placement for Papa John’s and Cinnabon. In terms of framing (sometimes Wes Anderson precise) and composition (New York and more exotic scenery alike look gorgeous), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty may be the most technically accomplished movie Stiller has ever directed, and its heart is in the right place. But the initial fog of middle-age regret dissipates into too-easy uplift.