There are two Ben Stillers. One is the guy in those terrible Fockers movies and the somewhat less terrible Night At The Museum movies, the one whose entire being radiates a kind of aggressive tension. And then there's the Ben Stiller of The Ben Stiller Show and Reality Bites, Zoolander, The Cable Guy and Tropic Thunder, the director whose persona feels like a natural outgrowth of being the son of a married comedy team and whose films usually remember essential elements like humanity and humor.
There are also two Walter Mittys. One is the indelible character from James Thurber's very short story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," an ineffectual man dominated by his wife, whose only respite from impotency is his extravagant fantasy life. That Mitty's story ends with him standing next to a wall, smoking, imagining his death by firing squad. You could call it dark.
The other Mitty exists the 1947 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Danny Kaye. A Danny Kaye movie needs a happy ending, of course, so that one pushes the befuddled dreamer into comedy heroics until he grows a spine and a sense of self. Stiller's Mitty takes after Kaye in that regard. Tough luck, Thurber purists, you're not going to win this one either.
2013 Mitty (played by Stiller) works in the photo department at Life magazine, its print days coming to a close thanks to corporate downsizing conducted by a team of meticulously -- and ridiculously -- bearded bro-types (led by a hilariously unpleasant Adam Scott). Scott and his pack routinely taunt and dehumanize Mitty, whose only response is to imagine himself as a superhero engaged in a city-destroying battle with Scott or as a scruffy adventurer with a "poetry falcon" who romantically commandeers officemate Kristen Wiig (not given much to do here except be sweet).
A search for a missing photo negative shot by a cartoonishly rogue photojournalist (Sean Penn, being That Guy) forces Mitty's hand. To respect the magazine and the job he'll soon be swept out of, he hops a plane to hunt down Penn, which leads him to the real Iceland and real volcanoes and real adventure. There's also a Papa John's Pizza place in the mix, which is some nasty product placement in an otherwise sweet-natured, thoughtful film.
As a Mitty for this moment, Stiller the actor is initially closer in spirit to Thurber's vision of a man who barely exists. But as he's coerced by circumstance to grow a pair, he threatens to become the embodiment of every awful thing created by contemporary culture's obsession with personal empowerment and grotesquely inflated self-esteem. He even gets a soulful, scruffy 10-day beard, the facial hair nemesis of Scott's manicured chin. It's enough to make you worry that the film will head down the stony Fockers end, pushing fake human interactions as truth and thumbing its nose at anyone who tries to point out the lie.
And then you keep waiting because it doesn't happen. Stiller the director handles it with a sense of restraint. He pulls back when he could push, his hero goes smaller and gentler when every studio note probably demanded bigger and louder. No, he's not a dark dreamer like Thurber imagined; this is feel-goodism at work, a family film, one with more heart and decency than you'd expect. It's the other Mitty, whether you asked for him again or not. And if there are going to be two of them, at least this one earns his place.