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Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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Big Ben is back, but it's more Greenberg than Focker...

Review: 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' (2013)

According to IMDB, Ben Stiller has (to include the Boxing Day release of his re-imagining of James Thurber's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) 14 credited stints as a director, six of which have come in the last 10 years. Of course, at 48 years of age Stiller's transition from front to back is hardly surprising; and as the 'crop' of comic icons Jerry Stiller (who zany-connoisseurs will know as Maury Ballstein, aka Derek's agent in Zoolander) and Anne Meara (herself a much-respected comedienne) there's no questioning the man's humorous genes. And yet, despite the man's jocular being, a modern day retelling of a comic that originally appeared in The New Yorker circa 1939 is...well, brave.

As a basic synopsis, try this: Ben Stiller is Walter Mitty, an extraordinarily bland individual prone to delusions of grandeur. A day-dreamer of sorts, Mitty has lived a life so sheltered that these 'trips' to the depth of his subconscious serve as the man's only vice, a blip in an otherwise 'grey-scaled' lifestyle. However, as Mitty's employers (Life Magazine) begin the transition to an online future, the subservient worker finds himself in a race against time; a wild-goose chase of prolific, yet resignedly reclusive photographer Sean O'Connell (wonderfully played by Sean Penn) and negative #25 – a picture the photographer proclaims as 'his best'.

Driven by a somewhat confusing relationship/crush of co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), Walter Mitty takes control of his life, living in the here and now as opposed to the 'where were you, man?'. Gone are the burning buildings, Hancock-eque Stretch Armstrong fights and cringe-worthy fantasies, whilst welcomed are the shark-fighting, DUA-helicopter rides and volcano-absconding experiences that make for such visual splendor. Walter's journey is one that we can all relate to – albeit metaphorically – and it's impossible not to root for this recognisable underdog.

What's so secret, Walter?

Review: 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' (2013), starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig and Patton OswaltThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a visual embodiment of the creative personality, especially those in a 21st Century state. How many of us dream of so much but settle for so little? Of course, Walter himself is an extreme caricature of the artistic muse, disappearing into a mental cocoon on regular occasions, but the basic concept of his existence is frighteningly relatable.

Walter sees himself as a very unassuming, uninspired individual – a point proven through his bland exchange with E-Harmony relationship consultant Todd Maher (played by Patton Oswalt). His out-of-body experiences are escapism at its finest, allowing him to assume the role of a far more courageous, adventurous version of himself. Worse still, Walter pays no attention to the importance of his role until something – or, in this case, someone – comes along and challenges these preconceived notions. It is from this moment that we have a film.

Up to now, Walter had been oblivious to the fact that iconic photographer Sean O’Connell had chosen him, and him alone, to bring his work to life. It was Walter’s dedication that had commanded Sean’s attention; and, whilst oblivious to the investment Sean makes in his existence, it is this dedication that spearheads Walter’s adventure. Of course, ‘love’ is an important catalyst in many of his decisions – as we’ve come to expect from all but a few of Hollywood’s leading releases – but Walter’s sense of adventure has always been there. Like the volcano in which he must escape, Walter Mitty has been dormant…but for no longer.

What an eye-line

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a visual delight. From the sweeping heights of the Himalayas to the unassuming beauty of Greenland, the film takes much from the rich lands and communities in which it finds itself. On paper, Ben Stiller on a push bike is as ordinary as a scene gets. However, when one places said scene in Iceland, gives the bike a ‘sole-transport’ motive and provides you with enough of a back-story as to allow you to sit back and enjoy, the prospect is suddenly breath-taking. It’s a dawning moment, as many of us will have had, when the pleasure of a situation is gained from the sheer ordinariness of its setting; a moment of translucent solicitude that speaks volumes through its silence.

Of course, that’s not to say that TSL of WM is boring…far from it, in fact…it’s just that much of the ‘cinematic action’ is courtesy of Walter’s imagination. Explosions, Matrix-esque fight scenes, pitch-perfect love scenes - all sections of Walter’s story that help bring the film to life on screen, but all of which also draw away from its realism; and ultimately it is this ‘realism’ that makes Walter Mitty’s journey so enjoyable. Sure, we’re unlikely to find ourselves fighting off shark attacks, or outracing an erupting volcano – or even boarding an all-or-nothing flight with a drunken pilot – but they’re not implausible...and that’s what makes Walter’s journey so real.

Performances of ‘life’, not of their lives.

Patton Oswalt plays E-Harmony advisor Todd in 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' (2013)Accompanying the film's stunning visuals are a number of pleasant performances. Some, such as that of Walter’s E-Harmony advisor Todd, perfectly complement Walter’s journey (the idea of adding shark fighting and volcano-chasing to an online-dating profile is just definitive of 21st Century romancing), whilst others – a la boss Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott and beard) - only further Walter’s need to branch out.

Other roles within help to add depth to the story.  Walter’s mother Edna (aptly portrayed by Shirley MacLaine) whose passion to keep all things Mitty, provides the audience with an understanding of Walter’s life and perhaps an explanation as to why he daydreams so much. His sister, a creative type herself, is the embodiment of what Walter wants to be – spontaneous, uninhibited, a free spirit – and his lab partner is representative of the passion to which Walter brings to the job. And yet, when it comes to Walter’s muse, my impression was somewhat ‘meh’.

Kristen Wiig, most notably known for her performance as Anne Walker in Bridesmaids, is enjoyable enough…but is just so repetitive. While this may be more of a personal hang-up, I just cannot seem to ignore the fact that she plays the same character…in everything. There’s no originality in her performances, and her range seems to be focused solely around a sort of ‘Oh, I’m here. Yeah…hello’ mentality. Then again, on an individual basis her performance is perfectly acceptable – and does its job of inspiring Mr. Mitty – but if you asked me to jump into a plane manned by a drunk, I’d need someone with far more personality to inspire.

On a plus note, her cover of Space Oddity by David Bowie was good…but that’s about it.

Conclusion

To gain the most from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, we must do away with a number of preconceived acuities. First, we must see Ben Stiller as far more than a Focker or a Zoolander. We must embrace him as an ‘artiste’, and give him leverage as a director. From there, we must accept that, while featuring a number of humorous scenes (all of which provide light relief and help with the film's overall pacing) this is not designed to be a comedy. Instead, it is a story of exploration, a journey to find oneself, for both Walter and the audience to which it plays out. Finally, we must approach it with an open mind, something that I only realised after the film had finished. Then, and only then, will we enjoy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty as it was intended.

Ben Stiller’s 14th directorial venture is an ambitious one, and one that further shows his intent to move away from characters/ideals that he has become known for. Although not as funny as I had anticipated, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty never drags, nor does it fall short of my expectations (albeit having to redirect them), and as such is recommended…as long as the above conditions are adhered to.

Whilst those of a creative disposition are likely to relate more to the content, there is an underlying message for us all to walk away with – to evaluate our lives and live for the moment. Like Walter Mitty, take risks and never look back...

4 stars


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