In the 20 years since Reality Bites, his directorial debut, Ben Stiller has metastasized from sketch comedy lunatic to Generation X darling to blockbuster king. Among the funnymen, most of whom have calcified into cliques (yawn, Anchorman 2), he's the last of the triple-threat writer-director-stars and the only one who would make a film as earnest, brave, and real as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Yet while Zoolander and Tropic Thunder have clawed into the comedy canon, Stiller has money but no respect. Unlike critical darling Judd Apatow, he's still stuck at the dweebs' table, just as he was in 1994 when he asked Ethan Hawke's Troy Dyer: "Have I stepped over some line in the sands of coolness with you?"
Like the '90s, Stiller loves sarcasm — he even cast himself as the handsomest man in the world — but his films are sincere within their worlds: Derek Zoolander really is a gorgeous model, Tropic Thunder's Kirk Lazarus is invested in his blackface, and even Troy Dyer aches for a connection he isn't mature enough to handle. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty drops all the irony. The story of a shy magazine employee with a magnificent imagination, it's an uplifting, big-hearted crowd pleaser. Which, in today's Hollywood, where every superhero has a standing Thursday appointment with a therapist, makes it defiantly uncool. The disaffectedness Stiller popularized in Reality Bites is biting him in the ass.
Stiller has the rare ability to grow or shrink his presence onscreen as the part demands, and he makes Mitty a truly ordinary Everyman. He's not a victimized wimp or a bumbling Focker, just a guy on the street who quietly fears he's letting life slip through his fingers. In his head, Stiller's Mitty daydreams of rescuing puppies and making women swoon. At work, he gets overlooked by his dream girl (a charmingly mellow Kristen Wiig) and undermined by his new boss, played by Adam Scott in a beard so fake it looks like a squirrel clinging to his chin.
Most comedies are populated by babes and schlubs who look like refugees from Budweiser ads, and they have fabulous jobs and even more fabulous apartments. The people around Mitty have crow's-feet and messy hair. They work at KFC and Nabisco and go home to small walkups where they have to squeeze past each other in the kitchen.
As in the original James Thurber short story, Mitty dreams he's leading a more exciting life, a Hollywood fantasy. Here, he imagines larger-than-life heroes and toughs in the visual language of film: The leaves swirl, the music quickens, and his eyes burn. This is a movie about a guy who wishes his reality were like the movies, which is just a half-step away from Tropic Thunder, a movie about moviemakers who don't know their reality is real. Mitty's fantasies even resemble Tropic Thunder — when he imagines himself as a frostbitten explorer wooing Wiig with his "poetry falcon," he looks like he has strutted out of his character Tugg Speedman's moronic blockbuster Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown.
Eventually, Mitty sets out on a real adventure to track down a wild-man photographer played by Sean Penn, who has more badass creases in his face than a topographical map of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, one of the stops on Mitty's trek. The film thrills at this quest: The National Geographic-quality vistas are almost distractingly beautiful, the indie ballads one synthesizer chord short of emotional overkill. Yet Stiller balances his big ambitions with small, grounded truths. On his way to the volcano, a flock of crows assembles itself into Wiig's face, but after the explosion, he goes to a Papa John's and balances his checkbook. Globetrotting ain't cheap.
It's in these details that Walter Mitty glows with life. Stiller is a humanist with a keen eye for comic minutiae. Even in a sweet moment when Mitty hugs a co-worker goodbye — something a lesser director would throw in for a cheap "awww" — he makes the men awkwardly shuffle a box out of the way. He keys in to what Thurber cautioned Samuel Goldwyn in 1947, the first time the Mitty story made it to film, that the tone "should be kept in a high romantic key and should never descend to anything of a slapstick nature... The dreams will be funny simply and only because they are the true representations of the average man's secret notions of his own great capabilities."
Like Mitty, Stiller dreams big. The problem is that audiences don't let him. We have trouble dividing Stiller the actor — the paycheck-cashing doofus of Night at the Museum — from Stiller the director, whose last film scored Robert Downey Jr. an Oscar nomination (for a summer comedy!). Stiller is in his own Mitty-esque nightmare: While his character dreams of being in Tugg Speedman's hits, he's suffering through Tugg Speedman's failures, making earnest flicks such as the "full retard" Simple Jack and getting mocked for being sentimental. He's both famous and forgotten, the best comedy director of his generation hiding in plain sight. As Penn advises him in a manly mano a mano: "Beautiful things don't ask for attention." True. But it's time we applaud Ben Stiller anyway.