'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,' and the public one of Ben Stiller

NEW YORK — Over the last 15 years, much of Ben Stiller's work — "Zoolander," "Meet the Parents," "There's Something About Mary," "Tropic Thunder" — has turned not only into box-office gold but something bigger, zeitgeist-defining comedies that continue to play in our minds and on our cable-TV schedules. Love him, get annoyed by him or simply think he'll never top a certain hair-gel moment, Stiller is one of this era's most influential comic presences.

Or maybe was one of its most influential comedic presences.

In 10 days, Stiller will, in many ways, say goodbye to all that. That's when 20th Century Fox releases "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," his fifth directorial effort, which he also produced and stars in. The movie doesn't pass up the occasional joke or fantasy sequence, but it has serious, even heartbreaking, stuff on its mind — big, meaning-of-life questions as a once-promising young man, now solidly in his 40s, stares into the chasm of squandered potential.

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Older filmgoers will recall Danny Kaye's 1947 "Mitty," also based on James Thurber's 1939 New Yorker story. That film was a series of loosely connected sketch pieces about a henpecked suburban man. Not so here. As a former youth skateboard champion caught in a rut as a low-level Life magazine photo editor, Mitty 2.0 is pitched differently.

After a decades-long funk following the death of his father, Mitty decides to embark on a real-life quest to shake things up, pursuing a lost photograph halfway around the globe and slowly working up the courage to ask out a colleague (Kristen Wiig). Written by the dramatic-minded Steven Conrad ("The Pursuit of Happyness"), it's a movie that shows, with no small amount of melancholy, how bad breaks can negate hope and talent — and asks what, if anything, we can do about it. 

If the film's mix of self-seriousness and whimsy has vexed some critics — Variety called it a "a feature-length 'Just Do It' ad for restless middle-aged auds" and noted its “mellow existential crisis of the sort Cameron Crowe characters routinely suffer”  — it reflects a director himself struggling under the yoke of unrealized ambition and his encroaching AARP status.

"This movie relates to me personally," said Stiller, 48. "It's where I am in my life right now. When you're in the world of creating things you're constantly trying to get somewhere where you haven't been. And that's the dilemma Walter faces."

Stiller was looking out at the Manhattan skyline from a skyscraper astride Central Park, contemplating a career that has improbably taken him from quirky humorist to one of the world's most bankable comedy stars — his "Night at the Museum" and "Fockers" movies alone have grossed more than $2 billion.

Yet despite all that, a restlessness pervades. He wants to direct far more than he wants to act. He has a newfound inclination for historical tales, not the comedies he once seemed to crank out by the fistful as an actor, director and producer. One of Hollywood's most complex personalities — at once charming and irascible, performative and squirmy — stands at a threshold. And despite their places at opposite ends of the success spectrum, he and Mitty have more in common than you might expect.

Dedicated filmmaker

It was a cold day in Iceland, even by Iceland standards. It was even colder if you'd plunged into the sea, as Stiller had just done. He'd submerged himself to shoot multiple takes as Mitty, small watercraft buzzing around him. He emerged dripping and shivering and was hurried to an inflatable hot tub. Production assistants enrobed him in towels.

"Ben's teeth were chattering, and his whole body was rocking back and forth," said Jeff Mann, the film's production designer, recalling the shoot. "Most people would just try to warm up. But Ben asked for the handheld monitor and began studying it. Then he looked at it, gave some notes to the people around him and said, 'Let's go again.'" A few minutes later, he was back in the water.

A few weeks earlier, a similar scene played out in on the streets of midtown Manhattan, where Stiller and the actor Adam Scott, who co-stars as Mitty's smarmy boss, careened down Fifth Avenue on wooden boards at nearly 50 M.P.H. in a fantasy fight sequence. Nothing but thin wires tethered their bodies to the trucks hauling them; neither man held on to anything except the  flimsy Stretch Armstrong doll they were fighting over.

When the trucks stopped, Stiller was quickly unhooked from the wires and ran up the street to look at the monitor.

“I remember thinking, ‘There is no fear here,’” Scott said. “Just a laser-like focus.”

On the two "Night at the Museum" films, director Shawn Levy had a similar encounter with what he calls Stiller's "fierce perfectionism," going through the script page by page with the actor as Stiller offered thoughts throughout. When they were finished, Levy took all the notes back to the writers for a new pass. He then took the revised draft back to Stiller and repeated the process all over again. "We'll do this 10-12 times," said Levy. "OK, 12 is the most we've done," he added and laughed. "But more than a half-dozen."

That pre-production meticulousness held on "Mitty." Stiller was initially set to only star in the film, which over 17 years in development had hit the shoals with several directors, including Steven Spielberg and Gore Verbinski, who couldn't find the right tone for an update. Shortly after reading Conrad's script as an actor, though, Stiller began writing elaborate notes in its margins. "It was not something you'd normally see an actor do," said John Goldwyn, the film's producer. "You could tell it spoke to him."

Soon after, Stiller decided to helm the movie too, despite the Kurtz-like efforts of those who came before (“It helped that I didn't think about it that way,” he said dryly.)

As imagined by Stiller and Conrad, their movie would contain some comic nuggets. But it would largely reflect the frustration of middle-aged and middle-class males and the wages of loneliness, a bit like what "Falling Down" might look like if Michael Douglas had gone to a more lighter, more redemptive place. (The posters are eerily similar, with images of solitary men with ties and briefcases hovering over the world below.) "I felt that Steve made the movie about something more than just a daydreamer with incredible fantasies," Stiller said. "It became a story about a man willing to take a chance to connect." 

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So Stiller went to work. He wangled from Fox a budget of nearly $100 million, a gargantuan sum for a drama. He brought on a crack visual team, including Mann and the Oscar-nominated cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. He began pushing the cast to enter the melancholy head space he wanted the film to occupy, sending them bunches of emo songs, like a track from the Oakland indie band Rogue Wave. And he honed the character into someone who, when he eventually responds to his circumstance, does so with surprising ferocity.