Friday, January 3, 2014

Movie Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Directed by: Ben Stiller   
Written by: Steve Conrad based on the short story by  James Thurber.
Starring: Ben Stiller (Walter Mitty), Kristen Wiig (Cheryl Melhoff), Adam Scott (Ted Hendricks), Sean Penn (Sean O'Connell), Shirley MacLaine (Edna Mitty), Kathryn Hahn (Odessa Mitty), Adrian Martinez (Hernando), Marcus Antturi (Rich Melhoff), Patton Oswalt (Todd Maher).

Unlike many of the short stories I read as part of my high school education, I can vividly recall the details of James Thurber’s masterpiece The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I suspect that is because I feel a certain affinity and affection for Thurber’s daydreaming protagonist – a man who lives out elaborate fantasies in his head as a way of dealing with his mundane everyday life. I never saw the 1947 film version with Danny Kaye – I gather from a brief plot description on Wikipedia that it altered Thurber’s story almost entirely, basically taking the premise of a daydreamer, and jettisoning the rest. The same can be said of Ben Stiller’s version of the story. There really is not much that the original story and this movie have in common, except its main character likes to daydream. But while Thurber’s title character remains “inscrutable to the last” – still daydreaming at the end of the story, Stiller basically uses the idea as a jumping off point for a big screen vanity project. Perhaps if I didn’t love the original story so much, I would have enjoyed this film a little more.

Stiller directs and stars in the title role. His Walter Mitty is a “Negative Asset Manager” for Life Magazine – which essentially means he is in charge of all the photos that come in. As the movie opens, Life has been sold, and some corporate hatchet men – led by Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) have been sent in to publish a final issue, and then transition the magazine online. This will involve massive layoffs, and Walter has little hope of keeping his job. Not only is someone who processes film not really necessary for an online magazine, his frequent daydreams come at the worst possible times – often leading Ted to think Walter is a dimwit. Many of his fantasies involve him doing something heroic, or confronting Ted, or getting Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) – a new hire in his department – to fall in love with him. The action begins when famed photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) sends in his last roll of film to be developed – and has chosen photo 25 to be the final cover of Life Magazine. The only problem is that the photo is missing. After enlisting Cheryl to try and figure out the mystery – which ultimately leads nowhere – she convinces Walter to have a real adventure – so he sets out to track down O’Connell himself. The only problem is he is somewhat of a nomad – he could be anywhere – but Walter gradually puts together the clues, and travels around the world on his quest – and finally gets outside his own head.

A mainstream Hollywood film version of Thurber’s Walter Mitty is probably impossible – it is a dark story even though it is quite humorous – but it ends with Mitty just as lost in his daydreams as ever. There is not great uplift or message to the movie that Hollywood likes. I suspected before walking into the theater that the movie would try to make everything more inspiring than Thurber’s original – and that is pretty much exactly what Stiller and company do.

I liked the first half of the movie more than the second half. It’s here where Walter spends his time in his daydreams, and makes ever so little progress into getting into the real world. There is something charming about his fantasies, even when they are a little goofy. But when Walter heads out to see the world – and gets himself involved in one adventure after another, the film lost me. The contrast between what Walter was like before and what he does when he’s out in the real world was just too great for me to reconcile in my head. Seeing the world is one thing – jumping out of helicopters, running away from active volcanoes, and climbing giant mountains – is another thing altogether.

Stiller is fine in the lead role though. The supporting cast is mainly wasted – given one note roles to play, and although Wiig, Penn, Scott along with Shirley Maclaine and Kathryn Hahn, who play Walter’s mother and sister, play their one notes well, that doesn’t make them particularly deep roles. As a director, Stiller keeps pushing himself a little deeper each time out. This is inarguably his most ambitious film yet – and if he doesn’t quite pull it off, I admire him for trying.

It isn’t really fair to compare the film so heavily to the story that it is inspired by. If a movie works, it works and if it doesn’t it doesn’t, no matter how closely it follows what inspired it. Therein lies the problem with Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – it doesn’t really work. When you take something as short and perfect as James Thurber’s story and then radically change it, you have to give the audience something that makes them forget the story’s origins. The movie never does that.

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