Monday, January 20, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (**1/2)

Directed by Ben Stiller


Walter Mitty sincerely wants to be taken seriously, but goes about doing so in some rather interesting ways. It's directed by it's star, Ben Stiller, with a lot of showy shots, usually equipped with a high degree of difficulty. Walter Mitty was supposed to be Stiller's announcement as an important filmmaker, the one that changed our perspective on his career - the beginning of the shift where we start thinking of him as a director first and a performer second. The way Dances With Wolves did for Kevin Costner or Unforgiven did for Clint Eastwood. It didn't really work out that way. Since it's Christmas Day opening, it's made $150 million worldwide, but mostly did 'meh' business stateside and didn't exactly produce the awards attention that its makers might have hoped for - it didn't even catch one of those gimme Golden Globe nominations. So what happened? The film lands somewhere in the middle of good and mediocre, and in Fall 2013 schedule that was filled with such elaborate heavy hitters, that's just quiet enough to go essentially unseen and forgotten.

Walter Mitty is incredibly sweet and sincere, but does it's best to try and avoid outright sentimentality. I think it fails on that end, it's script relies too often on warm and fuzzy resolutions and convenience to get itself out of screenwriting pickles. There's a Forrest Gump-ian quality to its story and it's odd that being like that movie is seen as a pejorative to a lot of people. It's whimsical and seems to have an enthusiasm for human kindness that was missing in most of the films of the Fall. This kind of sweetness seems old fashioned by today's standards. Had this been released in 1997, it may have been an Oscar contender. I also feel like in a weaker year, this may have been a bigger crowd-pleaser, equally dismissed as saccharine and stale. Stiller wanted to make a film universally about the human spirit during a time when opinion of the human spirit isn't that high. It feels too big to address the human condition the way tiny indies do and too small to be a blockbuster hit. In trying to hit a sweet spot, it may have missed the target completely. Walter Mitty is still a solid film in it's own right, but we no longer judge films on their actual merit. With its lackluster box office and no-show at the awards, it's already been decreed a failure.

The film is based on James Thurber's classic short story of the same name. That story was about a man who daydreams wildly while his wife is shopping, but the story's plot was Mitty's imagination and it's singular view is what made it acknowledged as Thurber's foremost masterpiece. I enjoyed Stiller's adaptation: he sees Mitty's daydreams as a condition, something to be cured with real human connection. It's the easy translation to make, but Stiller knows that making the characters fully-realized is the key. Stiller's Mitty is a photo negative analyst in the photography department of Life Magazine. He's incredibly insulated, never really speaking to anyone inside the office other than his assistant Hernando (Adrian Martinez). He's one of the most tenured colleagues within the magazine, holding his position for sixteen years and has been responsible for perfecting some of the publication's most powerful images over that time. He's especially respected by daredevil photographer, Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), whose powerful images have graced Life time and again. Sean never deals with anyone at Life other than Walter, because he knows Walter is the only man who has the talent to make his images fully realized.

Despite his achievements, no one at the office really knows who he is. Conversation isn't his strong suit, and too often his mind will wander into exorbitant fantasies in which he performs heroic acts. In his mind, he imagines himself an extraordinary human being, but he has trouble showing it to others. One person in particular that he'd like to show is Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a woman who works within his department but to whom he's never spoken to. When he sees her, he can barely muster the courage to say hello, but he imagines himself saving her from a burning building and later sees himself as a Spanish mountain climber, seducing her with his exotic accent. Like most publications, Life Magazine is downsizing to only an internet publication and discontinuing their print copies. Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) is hired to assist the workers in the company's downsizing and prep for their last printed magazine. Ted has little respect for Mitty's job and when going through hundreds of workers to decide who's most valuable, a man who analyzes photograph negatives doesn't exactly seem high on the list of priorities.

It doesn't help matters when Walter can't find a photo negative for the first time in his career. Not just any negative, but a negative by Sean O'Connell that the photographer himself describes as the pinnacle of his work, one that will capture the "quintessence" of Life Magazine. Hendricks wants this photo as the cover of the final Life Magazine and is eager to get a look at "Image 25". But when Walter opens the roll of images, 25 is missing. Him and Hernando search the entirety of their warehouse, but it's not there and Walter seems convinced that Sean may still have it. With Hendricks breathing down his neck, Walter begins to feel that finding this negative may be what keeps his job. In an effort to find the image, he decides to break out of his isolation and head off on a journey to find Sean O'Connell. He travels to Iceland and Greenland, through karaoke bars and volcanoes. The man who spent most of his adult life in a dark room finally comes out of his cocoon and goes off on a search. With the encouragement of Cheryl, whom he finally decides to talk to before his trip, Walter sets off to realize his full potential and be an active human being.

Even before Mitty, I think Stiller had proven himself as a very capable filmmaker. Reality Bites and The Cable Guy are amongst the best comedies of the 90's, while Zoolander was a hilarious spoof with plenty of cult appeal and Tropic Thunder was one of the greatest Hollywood satires in recent memory. Mitty is his first film since Reality Bites that isn't inherently slapstick. It feels like comedy is where his truly inspired filmmaking lies, and there are a few uneven moments within Mitty where he seems to default and fall back on the laughs reflexively. A scene where the film spoofs David Fincher's Benjamin Button probably gets the biggest laughs within Mitty but it also is the most head-scratching moment of the film; it's a scene better suited to The Ben Stiller Show of old than this movie. Mitty is a film that is meant to be taken seriously, which is a hard concept to grasp because Stiller has made a career out of not being serious. Actor-to-director success stories happen all the time in Hollywood - just last year Ben Affleck directed Argo, the Best Picture winner for 2012. But can we have the same transition for a comedic actor? Stiller is seen as a notch below Affleck as a filmmaker even though all of the evidence seems to show that he's actually quite better than the soon-to-be-Batman.

As an actor, Stiller shows that he is capable of great acting in the needed moments, but a full, lived-in performance over the course of two hours is still something that seems outside his reach. See Noah Baumbach's Greenberg for another example of this. Only The Royal Tennenbaums seemed to take advantage of his full capabilities as a dramatic performer, and that was a supporting character. But Stiller is very solid here. With his outward persona, it's easy to forget just how small a man he actually is which fits perfectly within the character of Walter Mitty. I did not care much for the backstory created for Walter and the pop psychology used to imbue him with motivations (Saving Mr. Banks may have ruined 'Daddy Issues' as a plot device for me), but Stiller does his best to rise above it and succeeds more times than he doesn't. I also appreciated the casting of Wiig as the love interest, since it would have been so easy for Stiller to cast a woman half his age in the part - which his fellow 90's comedian-turned-movie star Adam Sandler has made a borderline indecent habit of. Wiig is incredibly charming in all of her work, and Mitty is no exception, and it's good to see that kind of part go to an actress who has actually earned it.

I very much enjoyed the casting of Sean Penn as well, who never seems to shy away from opportunities to make fun of just how seriously he takes himself. Penn is treated like the cherry on the top of the Walter Mitty sundae, as if the participation of one of the Great American Actors is further verification that Mitty is an important movie. But Penn doesn't treat the role that way, he miraculously plays his one true scene for easy laughs and it's one of the best moments of the movie. Based on recent interviews, it seems like Stiller wants to have the Robert Redford/Kevin Costner career where their second half is known for their directing, and I hope the less-than-stellar performance of Mitty doesn't stunt that. He has talent as a storyteller and is knowledgable enough behind the camera to tell these stories with true cinematic flair. But Walter Mitty still shows that most of his talent lies with slapstick comedy, that he's mostly going to be seen as the clown until he can prove otherwise. I, for one, think that he can make a gripping drama if he's given the opportunity to try again. But for one, I'm not sure he will be given another opportunity; and two, I'm not sure he really needs it. Stiller is like Joel McCrea in Sullivan's Travels, why convince people you can make them cry when you've already proven you can make them laugh?

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