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Published January 26, 2014

“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel, that is the purpose of LIFE”

-LIFE magazine motto

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) works for LIFE magazine, but has no life of his own. He spends his days working as a photo editor at the magazine and entertaining unrequited notions of romance towards his colleague Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig). His eHarmony profile is blank, and the most exotic place he’s ever been is Phoenix, Arizona. His sole escape from his dreary existence is through indulging in spectacular daydreams. But life is conspiring to shake Walter out of his bland existence – the magazine is closing, and the photo that will grace the final cover has gone missing while in Walter’s care. Walter must leave behind his boring existence and venture to far-flung corners of the globe to track down elusive photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) and find the missing photograph. It’s a fairly standard story: a man goes on a quest to find himself and make himself worthy of his lady’s love. Formulaic, certainly, but it is a sweet, life-affirming story, the type of thing to make you feel good about yourself and your fellow man.

The powerhouse behind this feel-good tale is Ben Stiller, who produced it, directed it and starred in it. It’s quite a different feel from Stiller’s previous work – Walter is a nuanced, realistic person, distinct from Stiller’s usual extreme characters. And the story itself is not a comedy. While there are humourous moments, particularly in the daydream set-pieces, this movie veers into a more serious vein than Stiller normally exists in. It is nice to see that he can achieve beyond the realm of comedy. He has created a beautiful film

This is particularly evident in how it looks. LIFE magazine was a photographic journal, telling stories through extraordinary photographs. Watching Walter Mitty is like watching LIFE in motion. The settings are magnificent – the spectacular vistas of Iceland, the Denmark Strait and mountainous Afghanistan – and beautifully captured on film. In addition, LIFE’s rich history of photography is used to great effect as mis-en-scene – the photos on display in the LIFE offices provide both a beautiful backdrop and another layer of meaning, famous events and faces subtly mirroring the action unfolding before them.

The spectacle goes further than just setting and backdrop. Some of the movie’s most memorable moments come from Walter’s extravagant daydreams – a fight with his boss over an action figure, rescuing a three-legged dog from a burning building, or a Benjamin Button-style romantic idyll. Words cannot convey the scale and spectacle of Walter Mitty’s fertile imaginings. They must be seen to be believed.

Reality, a rare commodity in Hollywood, also gets a look-in. it is pleasing to see movie stars wearing their years with pride. No attempt is made to hide Stiller’s grey hairs, Wiig’s wrinkles are there for the whole world to see, Penn’s face is craggier than the mountains he’s holed up in, and it doesn’t really seem to matter. It may only be a small point, but the presence of unlifted faces and undyed hair is a novelty that should happen more often.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is neither sophisticated nor gorundbreaking. It employs all the usual Hollywood tropes to deliver a bog-standard Hollywood message of living your dreams. But it’s so much fun, so dazzling to behold and so nice a story that I don’t care. It will raise a smile. It may not be a movie you’d go to see for intellectual stimulation, but it is a movie you should see with someone you love, someone you like or someone you have a crush on. It’s a great deal of fun.

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