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THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (2013) review

December 30, 2013

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written by: Steve Conrad

produced by: Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., John Goldwyn, Stuart Cornfeld & Ben Stiller

directed by: Ben Stiller 

rating: PG (for some crude comments, language and action violence) 

runtime: 114 min.

U.S. release date: December 25, 2013

 

Going into “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, I knew the gist of the 1939 short story by James Thurber that appeared in The New Yorker it’s based on. The title character is a nebbish daydreamer who escapes into his own fantasies, where he’s a hero or a romantic lead is the exact opposite of who he is in real life. That being said, I haven’t seen all of the 1947 movie adaptation starring Danny Kaye, but it would seem to me that a source material this cinematic is about due for a modern re-imagining. That’s where Ben Stiller comes in, directing and starring in a feel-good movie for the whole family that predominately plays it safe.

Meek and shy Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a fortysomething single guy living a life of anonymity in New York City, where he works as an assets manager at Life Magazine filing and storing photography. At home, he sits at his kitchen table, methodically balancing his checkbook or browsing through his potential dating possibilities on eHarmony, hoping to get the courage to make that one click that’ll break him out of his routine. At his job, he works in a dark office with one other person, Hernando (Adrian Martinez), isolated from the bright maze of cubicles of his other co-workers. One of them is Cheryl Melhoff (a sweet and endearing Kristen Wiig) in accounting, whom he’s watched from afar every workday and just happens to be lurking on eHarmony.

 

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Walter cannot imagine life any other way, except in his imagination. He has this thing he does where he spaces out and finds himself in heroic scenarios where he saves the day or where he happens to have the courage to ask Cheryl out or even (gasp!) swoon her. Then something snaps him back to reality where he’s missed his train or he’s getting a staredown from ridiculing co-workers. Whatever he decides to do with Cheryl, he better make his move very soon. It’s been announced that Life Magazine is folding (yes, that was intentional) and turning into an online rag. People will inevitably lose their jobs.

Indeed, changes in the real world are inevitable for Walter. He now has to deal with the oddly-bearded, Ted (Adam Scott, who seriously wins Best Worst Beard of 2013), who’s been brought in to prune and/or toss employees out while overseeing the final print of the magazine, despite clearly not caring about the significance of its history or exhibiting an iota of aesthetic know how. He’s immediately taken a shine to bullying Walter (nothing new for Walter) whenever he’s found spacing out around the office and  demands to see the photograph that renowned photojournalist, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), has sent in for cover of the final issue.

The biggest problem? Walter cannot locate the negative for this specific photograph and Sean is currently globe-trotting on an assignment. In a panic, Walter decides to step way out of his comfort zone and track down Sean to find out where the photograph is – this leads him from Greenland to the Himalayas. As he experiences life in different parts of the world for the first time, he gains a newfound confidence in himself and what once-considered-courageous moves he will make once he returns home.

 

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While I do have problems with this movie, I must admit I was completely manipulating buy it. I mean that in the best sense possible. As mentioned above, it’s a feel-good movie that made me relax and enjoy my time in the theater. It felt good to feel good. Now, because of that, some may feel Stiller is playing it safe or is far too transparent. I don’t care. I fell for it, in much the same way I fell for “Saving Mr. Banks”, which is also not a great movie (although it has better characters), but it is thoroughly enjoyable. This “Walter Mitty” is not sardonic or snarky, nor does it revel in annoying lowbrow and unfunny humor as most Stiller comedies do. I’m grateful for that.

That being said, there are two moments in this movie, that I wish Stiller would’ve emphasized more or at least repeated elsewhere. There’s the opening scene where we see him in his apartment struggling to hit the ‘enter’ button on his laptop, which would possibly connect himself with Cheryl Melhoff, opening himself up to who knows what. It’s a great dialogue-free scene that establishes Walter’s apprehensive nature right away. If we only could’ve had another scene like that elsewhere just to reiterate this character’s struggle with timidity.

The other scene I wanted more of was a bizarre daydream Walter has that involves himself and Cheryl. Well, pretty much all his dreams involve Cheryl (except a action-heavy fight sequence involving Walter versus Ted), but there’s one that happens in the middle of the picture where he imagines them as the characters from David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”. As dreams often have at least one detail wrong, Walter winds up an old man baby (instead of an infant), nestled against the equally aged breast of Wiig’s Cheryl. It’s bizarre, hilarious and tonally different from the rest of the movie – as it should be, because they’re dreams.

Anyone familiar with Stiller’s short-lived “The Ben Stiller Show” from the early 90s and how he would poke fun at mainstream pop culture (his John McClane was pretty awesome), will appreciate this. The thing with this scene is, while it is quite silly, the tone of the humor is a jarring shift from both the real world and his other imaginative daydreams. I wonder what this film would’ve been like if Stiller had decided to go there with Mitty’s other dreams. It would probably less family-friendly, that’s for sure.

 

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There are a few other characters populating Walter’s world that play an important part in this story, some I appreciated more than others. One is Walter’s doting yet free-spirited mother, Edna, played by Shirley MacLaine. Her role is small, but she’s also an important link to Walter’s real-life adventure. As Odessa, the usually delightful Kathryn Hahn is left to play the stereotypical clingy and somewhat embarrassing little sister. One character I just couldn’t get behind was Todd (Patton Oswalt), an eHarmony customer service representative Walter talks to throughout the movie. I really like Oswalt (in fact, he might’ve made a great Walter Mitty, but no way would a studio have him carrying a major release), but this character of his seems way too far-fetched. If I had a customer service representative continuously tracking me down the way this Todd guy does in the movie, I’d be asking to speak with his manager. Friendly or not, that’s just weird. The only other character I got a kick out of was this drunk helicopter pilot (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) Walter meets in Greenland as he sings karaoke in a seaside tavern. That indigenous character was a hoot.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is Stiller’s fifth directorial effort. I’ve liked most of his films ( I shared no love “Zoolander” though) and continue to be interested in his efforts behind the lens. I consider Stiller an actor capable of surprising viewers with his dramatic chops, in fact I would prefer he chose more indie roles like “Permanent Midnight” or “Greenberg”, but so many of his rom-coms and mainstream comedies have been hits, that’s what’s expected of him, I guess.

It’s interesting to note what could’ve happened with this adaptation of the beloved short story. Owen Wilson, Mike Meyers, Will Ferrell and Jim Carrey were all attached to play Walter Mitty at one point. Considering those four, this movie would’ve been a great reunion for Carrey and director Peter Weir or I would’ve been fine seeing Carrey reunite with Stiller (who directed him in “The Cable Guy”, one of my favorite comedies from the 90s). That’s not to say I didn’t like Stiller in the role here, I just kept wondering what a different director would’ve done with the material.

Regardless, Stiller benefits from having cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (Oscar-nominated for 1993’s “The Piano”) deliver some marvelous work, accentuating wide open vistas with a lush colors and office interiors with crisp brightness. I was surprised at how breathtaking the film looked on the big screen.

For some, much of “Walter Mitty” will seem cloying in its message of self-actualization. There’s the pulsing songs of Arcade Fire and Of Monsters and Men (as well as the funny and poignant inclusion of some choice classics from Hall and Oates and David Bowie) that feel like a cheering chorus to get you pumped for the titular character. And so what? I already on board by then anyway.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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