The first time we meet Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), he’s sitting at his computer, logged into the online matchmaking service eHarmony, trying to build up the courage to send a “wink” (the equivalent of a Facebook poke) to Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a co-worker at Life magazine. Walter’s finger hovers over his keyboard for what feels like an eternity — Stiller, who also directed the movie, is operating on a much subtler comedic vibe here than he did in Tropic Thunder and Zoolander — and when he finally takes a deep breath and clicks the send button, he gets an error message. The wink did not go through. Please try again.
On the outside, Walter comes off as a hapless loner: He’s so quiet and shy, he’s practically invisible. But on the inside — specifically inside his imagination — he’s a fearless daredevil, jumping off train platforms to rescue victims from a burning building, fighting bullies in comic book-style battles that tear up city streets and telling smarmy people off with a ferocity that reduces them to tears. “I live by my ABC: Adventurous, Brave and Creative,” Walter tells himself, even though nothing he does displays any of those qualities. But they’re buried in there somewhere: He just needs a little push to get them out.
So Walter sets out to find him — first stop, Greenland —and soon he’s actually living an adventure, narrowly avoiding getting eaten by sharks, rather than imagining one. The movie’s ending is never in question: By the time he completes his quest, Walter will have emerged from his shell and maybe even have worked up the courage to ask Cheryl out on a date.
But how Walter gets there is unexpected. Far less of a nebbish than Thurber’s character, Stiller plays Mitty as a man who at one point in his life set aside his wild and reckless nature (as a teenager, he was a mohawked skateboarder) and fell too deeply into his dull groove to climb out. But instead of throwing him into a series of Indiana Jones adventures, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty takes a slower, more contemplative route to its protagonist’s inner re-awakening. The fun, flashy fantasy segues into a mellower sequence of encounters and events, culminating with a climb to the upper Himalayas in Afghanistan, in which Mitty doesn’t discover himself: He just remembers who he is.