As far back as his FOX sketch show, Ben Stiller’s career as parodist has been based on a love-hate relationship with pop culture and with what passes for the modern condition. And the fantasy sequences in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty—which stars Stiller as a Life magazine photo editor with escapist daydreams—yield some of its funniest moments. But what lifts this studio comedy, Stiller’s fifth feature as director, is its sincere ambivalence about fulfillment in the age of iPhones and image saturation.
This updated Walter Mitty, written by Steve Conrad but no doubt sharpened by Stiller, is preceded by the 1947 adaptation starring Danny Kaye (not to mention Billy Liar) and might suggest a nerd-breaking-out-of-his-shell romcom. But from the deftly staged opening onward, Stiller makes the most of his comic timing and, especially his underappreciated skills as a dramatic actor. Forgoing the simmering snideness and spastic energy he often brings to the screen, he plays a wearier type here, frustrated by his inability to connect with the girl he likes at work (Kristen Wiig) or to stand up to the obnoxious corporate downsizers dismantling his analog workplace.
Mitty’s predictable realization of the need to get out and do stuff—precipitated by a series of adventures while tracking down an errant star photographer (Sean Penn)—nonetheless has a timely edge in an era when most people spend the majority of their time staring at screens.