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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013): Written by Steve Conrad, directed by Ben Stiller.  Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn, and Patton Oswalt.  Running Time: 114 minutes.  Based on the short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” by James Thurber. 

Rating: 3/4 Stars

            I’m rather surprised by the extent to which my thoughts on Walter Mitty echo those on Epic, another film featuring stunningly beautiful visuals somewhat undercut by a plot burdened by an excess of clich√© and formula.  It has so many elements that could add up to not just a good movie, but a truly great one, if only it had been tweaked in the right places.  As it is, what we’ve been given, in a rare serious effort by Ben Stiller, is a genuinely well-made and fun film, one that I absolutely enjoyed and heartily recommend, but which is also brought low by enough problems that I can’t pretend to be surprised at its lackluster Rotten Tomatoes rating.  

            Like the earlier 1947 film, Mitty is a very, very loose adaptation of the original 1939 James Thurber short story.  Walter is a middle-aged, middle-class schlub, grinding away in the negatives department of Life magazine, when he and his co-workers are informed by Adam Scott’s Evil Corporate Facial Hair that the next print edition will be the last, meaning that a great many of their jobs are now at risk, especially Walter’s, whose expertise in film photography is obviously about to become redundant.  As a last hurrah, the intrepid photographer Steve O’Connell, played with impossible awesomeness by Sean Penn, sends what he considers to be one of his greatest photos ever for the final cover, along with a personal gift to Walter as a thank-you for working with his photos for so many years.  Unfortunately, said print seems to have been cut from the roll and is nowhere to be found, eventually leading Walter to embark on a journey across three continents in search of it, learning a number of valuable Life lessons along the way (hehehe). 

            The central conceit of Walter’s character, in both the story and film adaptations, is his tendency to escape from his mundane, everyman existence by drifting off into assorted flights of fancy.  In Ben Stiller’s version, these fantasies range from brief snatches of conversation he imagines having to full-blown fist fights with Adam Scott.  They’re played up more for comedy than anything else, which is one stark difference the movie has with the original story, where they were intended primarily as pessimistic reflections on the tendency of most people to fall back into escapism when confronted with uncomfortable realities.  Here, they’re treated as an almost adorable side-effect of a genuinely nice, intelligent guy too shy to work up the courage to ask out his office crush, Cheryl, played by Kristen Wiig. 

            It’s an intriguing effort by Ben Stiller, an indie-esque love/adventure comedy with the carefully-planned cinematography and effects budget of a summer blockbuster, an unexpected combination coming from the man who brought us Tropic Thunder and Zoolander, and one that I think works a lot more than most film critics have given it credit for.  I compared its visual flare to Epic for a reason- along with that, Gravity, Frozen and To The Wonder, Mitty is easily one of the most gorgeous films I’ve seen this year, with more than a few shot sequences that absolutely took my breath away.  The motto of Life magazine, extolling the virtues of living as much as possible, is brought into the scenery in some very clever ways, and is never treated with sarcasm or irony.  If nothing else, the film feels like it’s coming from a place of real honesty, and while that does result in the story trending hard towards schmulz territory in the third act, I never really minded, because it didn’t feel like the movie was doing so just to pander to me as a viewer.  If more rom-coms tried half as hard as Mitty does, I’d have far more patience for them. 

            It is true that the movie’s determinedly upbeat tone and somewhat cornbally ending are a decisive break with the more melancholic intentions of the Thurber parable, but while that does make Mitty a less-than-faithful adaptation, it doesn’t automatically make it a bad movie.  What DOES make it a lesser film is its incredibly forced use of product placement.  EHarmony plays a massive role in the story itself (Patton Oswalt, while providing a great turn as a nearly-unseen telephone operator and Mitty’s lone confidant, can’t help but remind the audience of just how AWESOME the site’s algorithms are), and Papa John’s, McDonald’s, Facebook, Cinnabon, Chase, FedEx, and KFC are all either referenced or given glaring cameos.  There’s also a terribly-placed and unnecessary Benjamin Button reference that nearly breaks one of the film’s better scenes, but it’s quickly dismissed once it’s over.  It could be that guaranteeing extended product placement was the only way the movie could finally be lifted off the launch pad- the movie had been discussed, planned, and casted several times for over 20 years before Stiller was brought in to star and direct- but given the lofty ambitions of the rest of the film and its wide visual scope, the moments that focus in on well-known labels or dialogue scraps that quote commercial mottos are often big distractions, and will probably ruin the effect of the film for a great many viewers. 

            There are story issues as well- the plot device of the missing photo is depressingly easy to figure out, especially given the movie’s otherwise determined efforts to portray Mitty as a reasonably smart guy.  Walter is also ostensibly supposed to be a normal person, a stand-in for most of its audience, but his rapid ascension into a grizzly adventurer by the end would seem to contradict this.  I think the distance this creates between the main character and the audience is, however, alleviated somewhat by Stiller’s own nicely underplayed performance.  It’s easily the best performance of his I can remember seeing, at least since Night At The Museum.  The story’s uncertainty about how to handle him notwithstanding, Stiller brings in more than enough of the quiet humility so essential to making the character work.  In fact, nearly all of the performances and relationships in the film are kept out of the kind of overly melodramatic territory you might expect from Stiller.  Walter has several very moving scenes with his family, Sean, Cheryl, and even his colleague from the negatives storehouse. 

            For all of the moments brought low by corporate shout-outs and a few questionable writing decisions, there are too many scenes the movie gets right for me to dismiss it the way so many other critics have; my favorite sequences include the film’s music-less opening, a fantasy of Cheryl singing “Ground Control to Major Tom” to inspire him to jump into a helicopter, his bike-and-skateboard expedition to an exploding Icelandic volcano, and an extended sequence of him being guided through the mountains by Sherpas, to name just a few. 

            It’s not hard to understand why so many critics have dismissed this work, especially since it had the bad luck to be in theaters in the same month as Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, Frozen, and other Oscar contenders, but at the same time, I think way too many people are overlooking this one.  Yes, there is a lot of formula and ham in it, and while it gets some good laughs, there are plenty of jokes that don’t work as well (like the kind of awful Button one).  Sometimes it bumbles, and occasionally it falls on its face, but on the occasions when everything in it clicks, it brushes so very close to genuine greatness.  For me, that makes The Secret Life of Walter Mitty more than worth watching. 

-Noah Franc  

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