Monday, January 13, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Dir. Ben Stiller

3 out of 5

It's difficult for a movie that cost a reported $90 million to feel as unassuming as its painfully shy, sheltered protagonist, but here we have The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  Loosely based on James Thurber's seminal short story about a daydream-prone Everyman, this sweet-natured Walter (Ben Stiller) works in the photo department at Life magazine ("negative asset management"), processing images of daring deeds and exotic places far outside the boundaries of his hermetic comfort zone.  He frequently turns to his vivid imagination to escape the drudgery of daily life, becoming the heroic, fearless adventurer destined to win the heart of his office crush (Kristen Wiig) and stick it to the rude corporate lackey (Adam Scott) assigned to oversee Life's transition from an ink-and-paper magazine into a completely online entity.

While working on the cover for Life's final print issue, Walter receives a roll of film from the famed photojournalist Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), who leaves explicit instructions to use a specific negative that contains, in his words, "the quintessence of life."  Unfortunately, said negative is missing, and Walter is forced to track O'Connell across the globe using only clues gleaned from his other recent photographs.  Soon he's taking the kind of risks he's only dreamed about, trekking to the ends of the Earth to fulfill his work assignment and, eventually, to discover a genuine sense of self.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty displays great affection for the outmoded and old-fashioned.  It charges itself with a purity of purpose that's decidedly unfashionable for a 21st century blockbuster, with Stiller imbuing the film with a disarming innocence, both as an actor and a director.  Walter always extends his fumbling interactions at least one beat too long, as if waiting for the situation to turn into one of his daydream scenarios.  Yet Stiller is able to express these flights of fancy as products of general world-weariness, not some sort of troubling mania or depression.  

Though an exploration of the darker hues in Walter's psyche might have made for a more intriguing film, we get one that much kinder, and stunningly beautiful to boot.  With help from cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, Stiller flashes some impressive visual chops in his most stylish film to date, fully utilizing on-location shoots in New York City and Scandinavia to create painterly landscapes that rival any high-def nonfiction travelogue. It almost - almost - allows the Stiller to get away with turning the story of a man's offbeat and somewhat troubling method of escape into a full-motion Patagonia catalog.  

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the type of cinematic comfort food that tends to pop up during the holiday season, an unabashed four-quadrant crowd-pleaser engineered for entertainment-starved families seeking a temporary escape.  Outside of that context, it's harder to reconcile the film's slow-burning sincerity with the obnoxious dream sequences strewn throughout the first act.  Tonally jarring and frequently unwelcome, several of them recall the wacky MTV Movie Awards sketches that helped launch Stiller into the mainstream, except less timely and edgy.  Once the story gets going, Stiller drops the daydreaming conceit entirely, a move that makes his movie more watchable yet perhaps less memorable.  I certainly can't impugn the effort and good humor on display in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (any filmmaker who clears a space for Patton Oswalt gets a thumbs-up from me), leaving only bemused contentment for a film that few will find disagreeable but, I fear, even fewer will champion.

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