Ben Stiller is, as Tad Friend pointed out in The New Yorker last year, “the only actor with three billion-dollar franchises” (Night at the Museum, Madagascar, and Meet the Parents). He’s most known for those movies and for playful rom-coms like There’s Something about Mary and slapstick like Dodgeball. So you might not have guessed that for the past couple of years he’s spent much of his time developing and directing The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, an absurdist romp that will be released this Christmas, and which clearly has Oscar-sized ambitions.
In case you doubted those ambitions, the first trailer is in full “triumph of the human spirit” mode pretty much throughout.
Not much plot is articulated, but here are the basics: The original source material, a classic and very short James Thurber story, features a man, Mitty, who indulges in five heroic, escapist fantasies while shopping with his wife. The 1947 musical adaptation moved Mitty to a book publishing firm in New Jersey and surrounded him with a grating boss, nagging mother, and dimwitted fiancée. This time around, Mitty (Stiller) is a photo editor at Life magazine who is desperate to transcend the tedium of reality. He is heckled by colleagues and enamored with a sultry brunette (Kristen Wiig). A grizzled Sean Penn beckons him from a black-and-white photograph, and fantastical excursions involving helicopters and stormy seas follow. (A year ago, Richard Brody brilliantly glossed these differences between source material and film, based on Friend’s reporting).
The New Yorker profile largely painted Stiller as an auteur-in-waiting, an artist too long confined to antic physical comedy. And to be fair, Stiller can be a bold and audacious director: Reality Bites is an incisive Gen-X manifesto that holds up surprisingly well; Zoolander and Tropic Thunder have both become comic touchstones. The trailer also showcases Stiller’s talent for composition—the film looks beautiful, and the carefully framed and often panoramic shots are reminiscent of his buddy Wes Anderson’s work.
Stiller has said that Mitty is a golden opportunity to redefine his place in the popular imagination. It’s true: The film features all the usual big-budget bells-and-whistles, but with the narrative thrust and experimental touch that usually capture critical acclaim. It looks a bit like feel-good Oscar-bait, and could well devolve into heavy-handed melodrama, à la Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close. But consider this sap on the hook.