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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Year: 2013
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Ben Stiller
Writer: Steve Conrad
Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Adrian Martinez, Shirley MacLaine

I never saw the original version of this movie starring Walter Matthau, and I somehow missed this version in cinemas (like most people did, judging by the box office, although it did break even), but I was aware it was a particular passion project of Ben Stiller's. The trailer was interesting enough because it sweemed to have the same Ben Stiller we got in The Meyerowitz Stories or While We're Young – the serious one with a real personality instead of the comic mugging of Zoolander, Tropic Thunder et al.

The idea is solid and has a lot of cinematic potential, so it's easy to see why a producer in the modern era would be interested. Plenty of other movies from Heavenly Creatures to Enter The Void show us the world from inside the point of view of characters, and when you're dealing with dream states, internal viewpoints or the way a character wants the world to be you're completely off the leash as a director. All that's left is combining it with the real world effectively. Unfortunately, it's the one thing Stiller (as director) doesn't do enough.

The thing is, the fantasy visuals in and of themselves are good. In one scene he's running along a corridor in the office of Life Magazine where he works. There are framed covers behind him depicting pivotal events in human history, and soon it becomes apparent that he's in them all, a projection of his wish to do something amazing with his life.

In another, he's waiting for a train while on the phone to a technician from an online dating site (Patton Oswalt) trying to figure out the best way to complete his profile, when he suddenly breaks into a run, throws himself off the platform to crash through the window of a nearby apartment building on fire, and rescues the dog of the woman from work he has a crush on, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). If you don't figure it out at the time, they're both fantasy sequences.

Then, about halfway through, Walter spontaneously jumps on a plane and flies to Greenland in search of an enigmatic photojournalist, Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) to follow the mystery of Sean's last three negatives that were delivered to him. For a long time I kept expecting him to wake up at his desk or for his phone to ring and wake him out of this latest daydream, thinking the whole trip was another adventure in his mind.

Soon it becomes apparent that's not going to happen, that he really has run to the airport and flown to Scandanavia, and that's the problem with the movie – you're never sure what's completely real and what's not. Maybe that's the point the script is making.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Mitty works in the photo skunkworks of Life Magazine at a time when a slimy corporate raider (Adam Scott) has arrived to fire everyone and asset-strip the company for its potential as an online-only product. When most of the photographers who work with the magazine use digital cameras, O'Connell still submits film negatives that Walter and his assistant maintain and categorise.

The problem is, O'Connell's last package has a negative missing, and the remaining three give Walter very slim clues about where O'Connell is so he can go and find the guy and get the last one.

It puts an even bigger axe over Walter's head because everyone knows the missing photo is a potential cover for the final print issue, and the slimy corporate raider wants it toot suite. Walter finally gets the chance to talk to Cheryl when their paths cross at work and when she offers to help Walter solve the mystery of where Sean is, his greatest flight of fancy is on.

Stiller keeps it low key, which is good, but the whole thing is still a bit sweet and a bit toothless. It's at least surprising – you're not quite sure where the story is going to go (you never expect the leading man of a major film to find himself skateboarding down the hill towards a town evacuated because of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption) – which is an achivement for any movie of the last decade or more.

What's maybe most interesting is the use of the real life story of Life Magazine's demise, which had actually happened years earlier when the last print issue was made in early 2000.

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