Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Alternate Title:  To Boldly Go

One sentence synopsis:   A middle-aged daydreamer must locate the cover photograph for the final issue of Life Magazine.

Things Havoc liked:  A new year is upon us, and I thought the best way to begin it would be with Ben Stiller.

Stop laughing, I'm serious. No, I'm not a fan of most of Stiller's "comedy" stylings, such as the Focker movies, but quietly, along the way Ben Stiller has amassed himself quite a reputation not as an actor, but as a director. His last two directorial films, Zoolander and Tropic Thunder, were not only two of the better movies he's played in over the course of his career, but also two extremely well-made movies, cinematic and well-crafted. And with the particularly weird, arthouse-style trailers that this movie was graced with, going to see it was a foregone conclusion, albeit temporarily delayed by the need to see 47 Ronin. Don't judge me.

Based (very loosely) on James Thurber's 1939 short story, a staple of high school English classes the world over, Walter Mitty stars Stiller as the titular Mitty, in this version a photo-processing clerk at Life Magazine, a boring man who pines for a co-worker (Kristen Wiig) in silence, while having never experienced anything adventurous in his life, despite daydreaming with gusto all manner of extreme and ludicrous adventures, the sorts of power fantasies that most people grow out of after age 11 and the rest learn to never speak of. Stiller has never been my favorite actor, especially when he's trying to be funny, but this role is perfect for him, a straight-man to end all straight-men, not a goofy loser but a shy, nerdy introvert, who is perfectly capable of social interaction, but has, for one reason or another, chosen to avoid it for most of his life. Rather than mire Mitty in slapstick or awkward doofyness, the film merely makes him a wistful dreamer, a loser perhaps but not a pathetic one, which serves to make him a bit more real, no matter the absurdities he is subjected to. When he discovers that his would-be girlfriend may have gotten back together with her ex-husband, for instance, his reaction is not histrionics, but a quiet withdrawal, followed by an earnest effort to put the matter from his mind, irrespective of what his feelings might be. To say that I "know" people like this is a severe understatement, and Stiller is note perfect from beginning to end, keeping a character arc without sacrificing the essence of the character.

The rest of the cast is as good, generally speaking, from Shirley MacLaine as Walter's mother, who constantly knows more than she lets on, to Sean Penn, an actor I usually loathe, playing to his biggest strengths as Sean O'Connell, a world-traveling photojournalist whose missing picture inspires Walter's own quest. As with any good travelogue movie, the film also includes colorful and strange characters for Walter to meet once he finally breaks out of his shell, from salty sailors and tribal warlords, to a drunken lout of a Greenland helicopter pilot (Ólafur Ólafsson, in a wonderful little performance) to one of the most earnest dating-service clerks in history (Patton Oswalt), who serves as a sort of Greek Chorus to Mitty's transformation and evolution. I won't say that every one of these performances are particularly realistic (how many Afghan warlords can be really bought off with clementine cake?), but their role is not to show the world as it is, but as it may be found, if one is willing to find it so.

The film is art-house to its core, and yet when I say that, I don't mean a meaningless waste of over-symbolic time like a Malick film. What I mean is that the movie is constructed such that the fantastical element (Mitty's daydreams) are not split off into their own subsections and sequestered, but allowed to rest within the film in the confidence that the audience will catch up. Indeed so well are they integrated that midway through, I had the sinking feeling that the movie might pull the dreaded "it was all a daydream" card (it does not). The cinematography is gorgeous, as beautiful as a travelogue without resorting to obviously-faked postcard shots. Iceland appears to really be Iceland (take it from me), as does Greenland and Afghanistan and every other location that Mitty finds himself dragged to. From beginning to end, no matter the strangeness going on, the film "feels" real, something more important than actually being real, and gets across its message without the need for pointless shots of the sunlight filtering through trees, voiceover poetry, or hackneyed exposition. Terrence Malick wishes he could make a movie about the beauty and wonder of life like this.

Things Havoc disliked:  For some reason, this movie seems to require the services of a villain, in this case, a bearded Adam Scott (Parks & Recreation) as a douchebag "transition" manager brought into Life Magazine to shift it from a print to an online-only publication (a transition that actually happened in 2009, and ended three years later in the magazine's total collapse). That such people exist in reality (and probably were involved in the end of Life) is not the point, but Scott is such a raging tool that it makes Mitty's generally realistic portrayal begin to fray at the seams. Nobody, let alone the shy retiring type (who tend to be the kind to bottle anger), would take the dressing downs and petty harassment that Scott's character inflicts on Mitty over the course of the film, so when he walks away without a word, it spoils some of the generally proper portrayal that we see. Perhaps I saw too much of myself in the character or something, but while Scott is only on screen for a limited period, and while Mitty's final confrontation with him is satisfying enough (to say nothing of the daydreams his harassments occasion), I simply felt the character was unnecessary.

There's also a question of the narrative tightness, in particular, the pat nature of how the story unfolds. Every object Mitty encounters in his travels just so happens to have relevance to him at some point along his journey, until we start to wonder if we're dealing with a Sierra adventure game. I don't mind a few narrative coincidences when the movie is obviously not about the plot, but some of these coincidences begin to border on Deus Ex Machina after a point, and a couple of them (such as the ultimate location of the missing negative) manage to make several characters who were not established as being stupid to act as if they were. Little things like this become grating when your film is supposed to be about an everyman on a journey, for the simple reason that most everymen do not have perfect foreknowledge of just what crazy object they will need to solve some highly specific problem in the future.

Final thoughts:   The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is presently in the process of garnering highly mediocre ratings from most reviewers I am familiar with, and I will be goddamned if I can figure out why, as I found it to be a highly effective film when I first left the theater, and it has improved in my mind as I had time to mull it over. The message is simple, but very well stated, the characters, especially the main one, engaging, and the overall charm of the film shines through whatever minor scripting faux-pas it may accidentally make. It is without question the best thing I have ever seen Ben Stiller do, and should, if nothing else can, cement his place in the Ben-Affleck/Ron Howard school of questionable-actors-turned-excellent-directors. Above everything else, this is a film that earnestly believes in embracing one's life and dreams, not from some hallmark understanding of "life", nor some Malick-inspired mediation on the transitory nature of reality (or whatever Malick's maniacal brain most recently dreamed up), nor even in the slightly morbid "before its too late" sense. This is a film about the ways in which life simply happens to us, be we the most sheltered of introverts. All it takes is to seize it. Go and do likewise.

Final Score:  7.5/10

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