Monday, December 23, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

For F*** Magazine


Director: Ben Stiller
Cast:         Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn, Patton Oswalt, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Comedy
Run Time: 114 mins
Opens: 25 December 2013
Rating: PG

This reviewer looked up a list of songs which contain the word “dream” in the title. We’ve got “Dream a Little Dream”, “All I Have to Do is Dream”, “California Dreamin’”, “Sweet Dreams are Made of This”, “Dream On”, “Daydream Believer”… it seems “dream” is probably just behind “love” on the “most-used words in song titles” chart. The science of dreaming is a fascinating and inexact one and many have become preoccupied with dream interpretation; dreams being associated with escapism and wish fulfilment. Ben Stiller takes on the role of daydream adventure king in this adaptation of James Thurber’s 1939 short story.

Ben Stiller plays the title character, a negative asset manager at Life Magazine. It’s his responsibility to process the photo negatives that will eventually make it into the magazine’s glossy pages, and life can get a little dull. So, he's given to flights of fancy every so often. In real life, he’s too timid to ask co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Wiig) out, but in his daydreams, he gallantly rescues her dog from an explosion. Enigmatic photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Penn) has sent in his pièce de résistance to be put on the cover of the final physical issue of Life Magazine. Unfortunately, Walter discovers that the negative is lost, and with his mean new boss (Scott) chasing after him, he has to break out of the doldrums of his existence, embarking on a journey across exotic lands and going all carpe diem in search of the prized Negative #25.

In addition to playing the lead, Ben Stiller helms The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. This film is a change of pace from Stiller’s last two films as director, the manic, over-the-top and raucously funny Tropic Thunder and Zoolander. This is a film that purports itself as being more contemplative and more grown up, its title character embarking on a dramatic journey of self-discovery with nary a fat suit-clad Tom Cruise in sight. However, this is very much a conventional crowd-pleaser which barely nudges the mind, let alone provokes it. Beneath the fantastical imagery and the far-flung locales lies the hoary message of “follow your dreams”, addressed in a disappointingly superficial manner.

Yes, there is an appealing aesthetic to the film and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh has lensed some beautiful images of the lone figure of Walter traversing barren vistas, location filming in Iceland lending plenty of atmosphere. The film also captures the old-timey glamour and romanticism associated with the publication that is Life Magazine. However, it seems that Stiller’s sensitivities as a filmmaker are too commercial for him to truly embrace the weird and wonderful and he always has one foot firmly planted in formula. A film powered by whimsy, at no point does The Secret Life of Walter Mitty effectively sink its teeth into the consciousness of audiences, content to ply viewers with eye-catching sequences bereft of much substance.

Walter Mitty is yet another in a long line of “beleaguered everyman” characters Stiller has portrayed and he does have fun with the part, his most common screen persona meshing with the archetype of the Thurber protagonist. Even though he has fashioned the film as a less juvenile venture, glimpses of somewhat self-indulgent Stiller silliness are more than visible. There's a fantasy action sequence involving a Stretch Armstrong doll and an odd bit paying tribute to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that seems pretty out of place, even in a film about a daydreamer.

While this is clearly Stiller’s film to carry, he is backed up by an able supporting cast even if they don’t get a lot to do. Kristin Wiig’s Cheryl is sweet and approachable, emphasising Walter’s timidity in how hesitant he is to approach her. Wiig also performs an acoustic cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity (possibly related to Bowie’s cameo as himself in Zoolander). Adam Scott does make for an effectively unlikeable corporate slime ball, the particular style of facial hair he sports enhancing the “jerk factor”. Sean Penn’s role is small but important to the plot and though this most likely wasn’t anything of a challenge for him, his presence does lend a smidgen of gravitas Stiller himself would be unable to provide.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty sees Ben Stiller attempt to expand his horizons, the end result being a frothy globe-trotting adventure that is pretty to look at but nowhere near as deep as it would like to be. There are humorous moments that land and Stiller does affect a style that has shades of Michel Gondry, but the film can’t quite connect on an emotional level, the approach to telling the story creating too much of a distance with the audience.

SUMMARY: Conventional in the story it tells in spite of some inventive imagery, Walter Mitty’s isn’t a Life lived to its fullest.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong


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