Ever since the first trailer for this film came out, I have been intrigued by this film. The scope and scale of this story of a simple-minded man I was told several times was the perfect "Terry" movie. It sounded like it had great potential to be an Oscar candidate. At its best, it could be the next Forrest Gump. At its worst, it could end up just being an average family holiday movie like Jack Black's Gulliver's Travels or Adam Sandler's Bedtime Stories have been in recent years. I was very excited to see which it would be, hoping it would be that Oscar contender it looked like it could be. So which would it be? The answer is ... neither.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a man of no great consequence that lives a simple, uneventful life as a negative photo analyst for Life magazine. He gathers photo rolls from the magazine's photographers, and touches them up to make them printable. He has done nothing significant in his life, but often daydreams and "zones out" thinking about the amazing things he could be doing. Many of these fantasies are spurred on by famous free lance photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) who Walter has developed a good working relationship with by working with his photos. O'Connell is a perfect foil to Walter. He is a complete nomad who travels the world looking for the best photographs the world has to offer. No one every knows where he is. His pay stubs have to be sent to several different places hoping that eventually he will end up in one of those spots. O'Connell is everything Walter dreams he could be.
Several events start to bring about some changes in Walter's life. First, he starts to fall for a co-worker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), who doesn't really know he exists which is something he actually tries to change. There is also a mix-up with a very important roll of film from Sean O'Connell that requires Walter to meet his idol for the first time, but he has to find him. With some encouragement from Cheryl, he decides to live out some of his dreams and try to chase down O'Connell. Re-tracing O'Connell's steps turns Walter into the globetrotting man of significance he always wanted to be.
The strength of this film is by far its direction. This is Ben Stiller's fifth feature film as director and first since 2008's Tropic Thunder. The scope and scale of his films have been increasing with this being his most ambitious effort yet. He continues to prove with every movie that he is extremely talented behind the camera. Some of the visuals in this film look like a director who is competing for a Best Director Oscar. If he hadn't done so already, he definitely proves with this film that he needs to be taken seriously as a respected director. The direction is what gives the impression of an epic.
As far as the story is concerned, it's no Forrest Gump for sure. Walter Mitty is definitely an interesting character that the audience enjoys watching go from epic situation to epic situation, whether real or imaginary. However, the plot falls short of what a character like Walter Mitty deserves. The premise that leads to Walter's adventure is fairly unbelievable and underwhelming. It also screams of a predictable and underwhelming resolution that you can guess 10 minutes into the film, and although the ending didn't go quite like I thought it would, I knew from the start that the premise would never produce an ending one could consider "epic." With that said, a story doesn't have to be epic to be good. The relationship between Walter and Cheryl is very real and believable with both actors giving stellar performances. Also, the premise that leads to Walter's journey, although it may not be epic, is still fun and able to keep one's interest throughout the film. I just had such high hopes for the film to be a masterpiece, I couldn't help be a little underwhelmed. I realized quickly its aspirations were never as high as my expectations were.
So which one is it? Is it Forrest Gump or Bedtime Stories? I said earlier that it's neither. It's better than the common family holiday comedy. However, it never reaches the heights of an instant classic. Like I said, it never wanted to be. If I were to compare it to a film, it is more on the level of something like Stranger Than Fiction, which is a film I loved. It's not quite as good as Stranger Than Fiction, but there are some definite similarities to the characters and plights of Ben Stiller's Walter Mitty and Will Ferrell's Harold Crick. So where does that leave Walter Mitty and his secret life? Well, it won't get the Oscar attention so many were predicting. It might get some technical attention for Cinematography or Production Design or something along those lines. At the end of the day, it is a solid, feel good holiday film with some characters that add more depth and quality than your average family holiday film. I liked it for what it was. Now if only it could have tried to be more...