Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Review: "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"


There’s a point in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” where the film pokes a little fun at “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a movie I’ve always felt deserved a little poking. The irony is that director/star Ben Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad are operating in much the same mode as that 2008 fantasy-drama, and pursuing a similar audience.

Based on the James Thurber short story but diverging sharply from it, this is a comfortable, life-affirming movie that doesn’t challenge audiences too much. Yet it’s still an enjoyable, heart-warming time. The movie starts slowly … okay, very slowly … but when it hits its stride it’s as engaging as anything I’ve seen lately.

Walter (Stiller) is a workaday drone at Life magazine, heading up the cave-like photo archive. He’s just turned 42, has no close relationships or connections, and seems to have had his personality slowly extracted out of him over time. He is also prone to fits of fancy – “zoned out,” his family and friends call his little spells – where he imagines himself living a life of notoriety and high adventure.

These days the chief object of his daydreams is Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a new worker who plays a starring role in the movies playing inside his head. Mostly these involve coming to her rescue, or performing some kind of heroic deed, or otherwise impressing her enough to instantly ensorcel her into becoming his love-mate.

But disaster happens when the magazine is set to publish its final print edition, seguing over to an online-only production with most of the staff losing their jobs. (In the journalism game, we call this “transitioning.”) The changeover team is headed up by a colossal jerk (Adam Scott) who alights upon the mild-mannered Walter as his chief whipping boy.

They want to use a shot by legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) for the final cover, and he’s sent Walter his last roll of film (he’s old-fashioned that way) with still #25 described as his best photo ever: “the quintessence of life.”

Trouble is, photo 25 is missing, so after some prevaricating Walter sets off on a journey to Greenland, Iceland and eventually Afghanistan in search of the elusive photo. He finds himself living exactly the sort of adventures he once only dreamed of: fighting off sharks, jumping aboard a helicopter with a really drunk pilot, etc.

There are a lot of things the filmmakers do right, and some they do wrong. Stiller being a comedian at heart, he inserts some obvious laugh moments to perk up the dreary parts. (The Benjamin Button scene is undoubtedly the funniest.) This has the effect, though, of making the tragedy of Walter’s humdrum life less tragic. We feel less for him than we might have.

I also disliked the fact the screenplay didn’t give Wiig more to do. As we’ve seen from her starring roles, she can be quite a distinct onscreen presence; here, she exists more or less as a vessel for Walter’s fantasies. Pity.

The cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh is just spectacular, as Walter careens on a skateboard toward an erupting volcano or traverses a high mountain ridge. (I think they used the same one from the “Lord of the Rings” movies, but it’s still impressive.)

The use of product placement in the film is bold, and interesting. Rather than having products and logos hanging around in the background as subliminal cues, Stiller & Co. bring it right to the fore, working company brands directly into the storyline. For example, Walter has a running conversation with an eHarmony consultant (Patton Oswalt) about beefing up his profile. And his teenage experience working at Papa John’s pizzeria comes in handy.

And of course there’s Life magazine itself, which is presented in the movie as a last bastion for vivid photographs and stories, a place where every employee embraces the company’s mantra as their personal mission. (I feel compelled to point out the real Life ceased publishing as standalone magazine 13 years ago.)

I enjoyed myself at this movie, even as I realized it didn’t quite hit the mark, and its aim was not all that high to begin with. It’s a perfectly agreeable film that perhaps, a few years down the line, another movie will gently mock, and we’ll smile.





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