Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ben Stiller's THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY Dreams Of Being A Feel Good Epic

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

(Dir. Ben Stiller, 2013)

I remember reading James Thurber's 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” when I was a kid in elementary school and being charmed by its simple concept - i.e. average man has heroic daydreams throughout a mundane day shopping with his wife.

Later I saw the 1947 Norman Z. McLeod adaptation, starring Danny Kaye, and really wasn't into what they did with it. Apparently Thurber didn't either, much like how P.L. Travers hated what Disney did to MARY POPPINS (horribly handled in the currently playing SAVING MR. BANKS), Thurber protested the songs and screenplay to no avail.

Now Ben Stiller, for his fifth film as director, tackles the concept in this even looser adaptation that aims to be a feel good epic for the whole family. Unfortunately despite its hip cast (Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Adam Scott, Patton Oswalt), snazzy soundtrack (Arcade Fire, Rogue Wave, David Bowie), and lavish production values (Stuart Dryberg's cinematography is gorgeous) the charm of the original is lost in action.

We first meet Stiller's Mitty in his sterile looking drab New York apartment trying, but failing, to “send a wink” on his eHarmony account to a co-worker he's smitten with (Wiig).

Obviously Stiller, by way of Steve Conrad's screenplay, is updating Mitty for the internet age, a theme also present in his job as a negative assets manager at Life Magazine being threatened by the company making the shift from print to digital.

Mitty, who we're told by his mother (Shirley MaClaine) worked at Papa John's when he was a teenager, is another in the long line of shy awkward characters that Stiller has made his movie career out of - guys who learn through the course of their films how to come of their shells.

Between Stiller's fantasies about saving a dog from a burning building, engaging in a surreal super hero-esque battle with Scott as his arrogant dick of a boss, and wooing Wiig by bursting through the wall as a rugged arctic explorer, a plot involving a missing negative intended for the last print edition cover of Life emerges.

Of course, this means Stiller has got to ditch the dreaming and do some actual adventuring. He leaves his office and travels across the globe to Greenland, Iceland, and the Himalayas to find the photographer (Sean Penn at his crinkly grittiest), making the movie come off like Walter Mitty Vs. The Volcano especially because, well, he has to run from an erupting one at one point. 

Along the way, Oswalt, as an eHarmony representative, calls Stiller to get him to beef up the “been there, done that” section of his account on the dating site. You see, it seems our protagonist's main problem is that he's never gone anywhere.

It also seems like the real secret Mitty is hiding is that he has some mad skateboarding skills - these really come in handy on a winding mountain road in Iceland.

It's not just that Stiller's WALTER MITTY is a big commercial movie, it feels like a big commercial itself with its bumper sticker sayings and mottos.

But what is it a commercial for? eHarmony? Papa John's?

There's such a self conscious grab-life-by-the-balls vibe, transparent in such moments as Wiig telling Stiller that Bowie's “Space Oddity” is about “courage and going into the unknown” (Wiig even sings the song in one of Stiller's visions).

On the plus side, Stiller and Wiig, who it's nice to see playing a real believable person for once, have an easy going chemistry in their scenes together, but overall the comedy feels too light, the fantasies too forced, and tonally it's all over the place.

This is apparent in one of Mitty's daydreams about having that “Benjamin Button disease thing” where he's aging backwards and we see a CGI-ed Stiller as a tiny old man in Wiig's arms. This seems more akin to the spoofiness of his work in ZOOLANDER and TROPIC THUNDER than the spirit of the rest of the film.

I was also disappointed at how easily predictable all the film's pay-offs are. There are no surprises at how the narrative concerning Penn's lost photo wraps up, and the love story lacks any emotional pull.

WALTER MITTY is not without wit, and there's a fair amount of likability to the proceedings, but it's sad that Stiller and co. couldn't dream up something a whole lot better.

More later...

No comments: