Monday, January 6, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Director: Ben Stiller                                        Writer: Steve Conrad
Film Score: Theodore Shapiro                         Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Kathryn Hahn and Shirley McLean

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, not unlike its protagonist, is a very quiet movie. And that’s a good thing. After years of making bombastic, over the top comedies, Ben Stiller did one very smart thing in this fantasy adventure comedy: he made it realistic. This was a surprise. I had expected the parts where Stiller was actually on his adventures to be CGI extravaganzas and almost cartoon-like in their artificiality. Instead, he keeps his checkbook with him, writing down his expenses, and everything he does is something a person with the skills he possessed could accomplish. The other expectation is Stiller’s obvious goofiness, and that was another pleasant surprise. He plays the entire piece straight, bringing down his performance to an intimate level of the type glimpsed at in the Night at the Museum films, but kept it there.

The story begins with Stiller at home in the morning, wanting to send a wink to Kristen Wiig on an online dating service, but when he tries it doesn’t work. He calls the help desk and gets Patton Oswalt on the line, misses his train when he fantasizes about saving a barking dog from an exploding building, and is late for work. Turns out he works for Life Magazine, which is ceasing publication and becoming an online magazine only. Stiller works in the basement with the film archives and for the last cover shot they are going to use a photo from their top photographer, Sean Penn. One problem, the picture is not in the roll of film Penn sent and the new executive who is there to fire everyone wants it. At the same time, Wiig happens to work in his office and Stiller manages to enlist her into helping him solve the mystery of where Penn is. Ultimately, Stiller has to take a chance in both realms of his life in order to become the person he was meant to be.

In addition to Stiller, Kristen Wiig also puts in a very thoughtful performance. She has a son in the film and he and Stiller connect over skateboards. Stiller also has a sister, probably the most quirky character in the film, played by Kathryn Hahn. Lastly, the great Shirley McLean plays Stiller’s mother with a subtlety that, again, was quite unexpected. The male roles, on the other hand, were by far the most clichéd, with Adam Scott as the corporate hatchet man in an incredibly bad beard, John Daly and Terence Bernie Hines as his friends at the office, and Adrian Martinez as his co-worker in the film library. Sean Penn, in a small role as a seemingly crazed photographer who still uses film, does a terrific job as something of the Holy Grail for Stiller.

Overall, it was not a great film, but as Stiller’s first really serious effort it shows promise. Unfortunately the realism of the film is actually something that works against him because it destroys the narrative arc. When he sets out on his adventure and gets to Iceland, he sees Sean Penn on an airplane flying into a volcano and then . . . he just gives up and goes home. Not only is it inexplicable but it stops the story dead, and even though he eventually goes back to his quest the narrative momentum is gone. But there are other places where the reality works well. The relationship he develops with Wiig is very believable, and the crazy mother expectation with Shirley McLean never materializes, giving that part of the story more grounding in reality. The three or four fantasy sequences are nicely done, and one wishes for more. But Walter Mitty is a solid effort from Stiller and I hope that he continues to work in a more serious vein.

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