Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Director: Ben Stiller
Writer: Steve Conrad

If The Secret Life of Walter Mitty were a food, it would be one of those giant rainbow-swirl lollipops. It's a dazzling amalgamation of colours and you will concentrate on the subtle details of particular shots with the same intensity of a child poring over a Where's Wally? double-page spread. Does this lollipop taste good? I think it does, but I also think I'd have enjoyed it more if it didn't have so many cracks. This particular film reviewer prefers his movies with a cynical edge that confirms his worldview—life is a series of disappointments, with the occasional intervening success. Walter Mitty is not the type of film that echoes such a sentiment. While the eponymous protagonist does persevere through several obstacles, the film is ultimately a sweet one that will have you exiting the cinema with a smile on your face. Most films that veer into saccharine territory have no idea how sentimental they are. They mistake goodbyes in the rain for profundity. Walter Mitty can get sickly sweet at times, but I can forgive this, for the film is inherently tied to notions of escapism. 

The film is based on James Thurber's 1939 short story of the same name. Ben Stiller stars as Walter Mitty, a LIFE magazine employee who works in the Negative Assets department. The magazine is planning its final issue and depends on an important photograph taken by Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) which will be used as the cover image. When Walter cannot locate the negative of O'Connell's photograph, he embarks on a global trip to find the photographer himself. What Walter doesn't know is that his journey will uncover a latent lust for life he wasn't even aware he had. The missing negative is not the only thing on Walter's mind. He is infatuated with his co-worker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), and concocts elaborate daydreams wherein he is her saviour. We get the sense that Cheryl is the only reason Walter makes the effort of turning up to work. However, he is painfully shy and hesitates to initiate contact with her. He'd much prefer to send her a "wink" on eHarmony. Wisely, the film never threatens to devolve into a cheap "Will Walter get the girl?" scenario. Instead, we wonder, "Will Walter get himself? Will he understand what he is capable of and harness that to do something like ask out a woman he likes?"

This is such an unusual film and I beg you to abandon all expectations before you watch it. I was hooked by its beautifully-edited trailer but now I wish I hadn't seen it, as I was left slightly underwhelmed by the film as a whole. The first act surprised me with some grandiose hallucinatory scenes that would seem more at home in an action blockbuster. They are well-executed and show that Stiller understands comic exaggeration. The moment Walter leaves New York and flies to Greenland is the moment I began to lose interest. Walter's conversation with a drunken helicopter pilot is amusing but nowhere near as funny as Bill Murray's encounters with Japanese locals in Lost in Translation. The difference: the drunk pilot felt like he was written into the film specifically to be funny; the people of Tokyo could have been anything. Much of the film's second act feels like an advertisement for Walter Mitty, the human being. It was almost like I was watching Walter Mitty's showreel—an audition tape for a reality TV show on adrenaline junkies. The icy landscapes were a huge shift from the sunlit streets of act one, and I felt very distanced. The cinematography in these scenes is gorgeous, but I seldom felt involved. Perhaps this was intentional to prove that Walter does not need anyone's support (not even the audience's) to reach self-actualisation.

I have no problem with this film being sweet. I do have a problem with how it chooses to be sweet. The honey-coated soundtrack that conveniently arises during "uplifting" scenes is a distraction. We see inspirational words flash up in the background. It's worrying when a film has to literally spell out its messages for an audience. Despite the film's glaring flaws, I was able to suspend my disbelief. As implausible as Walter's journey may be, it springs from an emptiness that most of us can relate to. It speaks to the failure in all of us. We root for Walter because he represents everyone who has ever wanted to escape the trappings of deep ennui. 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is Ben Stiller's most ambitious film as director to date. I would also say it's his best-directed film. Reality Bites is nice but forgettable. The Cable Guy is weird for the sake of weirdness. Zoolander is cinematic garbage. I found Tropic Thunder very unfunny and boring. Walter Mitty is only sporadically hilarious. Most of its humour is wrung from wry quips. But it is not primarily a comedy. It shines as an adventure film, espousing that we may have to travel miles to summon ideas that are only two neurons apart. I'll say this about Stiller as a director: he knows what looks good, cinematically. He understands how to make an audience feel something. Give him a few more years and he'll produce something really special.

3.5/5 stars.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty will be released in Australia on 26 December, 2013. 

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