Thursday, December 26, 2013

Dream On: THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY


The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an ode to manufactured uplift and insta-insight. Loosely extrapolated from James Thurber’s short story of the same name by screenwriter Steve Conrad of The Weather Man and The Pursuit of Happyness, this is another of his stories about an everyman who finds his employment or lack thereof not providing enough fulfillments. It’s something of a parable about getting the courage to live your dreams, travelling the world to find you had what you needed inside you all along. Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, the film follows him as Walter, the man of the title. He’s dedicated to helping his elderly mother (Shirley MacLaine) and to his job keeping track of the original negatives of every photo for Life magazine. Unfortunately, a mixture of personality and circumstance has found his dream of travelling the world and having experiences beyond the cubicle long forgotten. He’s like George Bailey without all those wonderful life moments an angel could show him. Walter Mitty wants more, retreating into his mind for daydreams of grandeur, of saying the right thing or saving the day. Alas, they aren’t to be. Yet.

For the swooping sentimental arc of Conrad’s screenplay to fully take off, events conspire to push Walter out of his comfort zone. The magazine is in the process of shutting down, led by a jerk manager (Adam Scott) who sneers at the employees with contempt as he pushes them out the door, managing their livelihood’s transition to a web-only all-digital format that needs only a skeleton crew to manage. Their best field photographer (Sean Penn) sends a roll of film, designating a particular shot as the perfect one to grace the final print cover. When Walter looks through the photos, the one he needs is missing. Getting up the courage to ask the co-worker he has a crush on (Kristen Wiig) to help him track down the photographer's next dangerous photo shoot, Walter decides to throw himself into solving this particular mystery of the missing cover photo. Why? He just does. It’s a prefab situation ripe with symbolic import that pushes him out the door, following clues to their globetrotting destinations.

Stiller’s direction – fussily composed with impressive formal control – has faint echoes of Wes Anderson and, fainter still, Jacques Tati, as he builds a world of modern architecture and office spaces that are totally ordered and closing in. Walter’s daydreams, on the other hand, are glossy Hollywood dreams in which he becomes a quipping comedy star ready with a comeback, a rugged lover clambering down a mountain to the woman he wants to woo, or a superhero smashing down the city streets after his nemesis. More than once he’s told he has great imagination. Maybe so, but he could also just watch a lot of movies. By the time he’s out in the real world, the picture takes on a shiny widescreen postcard look, soaring over mountain ranges and ocean waves, finding Walter as a small piece of big world, small in big frames and vast vistas.

It’s all so gently sentimental as the self-help mysticism of living his dreams of adventuring helps him to become his best self. And yet it all feels so artificial and contrived, a perfect closed system of a film studded with obvious turns of the gears and pulls of the strings. I could see every payoff clearly with each setup, no matter how lovingly photographed by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. It’s a gorgeously composed film that’s suffocating in its surface beauty. Each step of his journey feels preordained and carefully composed in a way that doesn’t match the gathering of courage necessary to take such a journey. Here, obstacles –sharks, volcanoes, warlords, drunken helicopter pilots – aren’t so much something to overcome as Hollywood spectacle to experience.

Perhaps there isn’t enough differentiation between his daydreams and his real world, after all. Sure, he’s not really leaping out of a skyscraper with newfound super-strength, as he imagines at one point. But I’m not sure how the Walter we meet becomes a guy who can climb enormous mountains all on his own. Maybe the filmmakers sympathized so greatly they couldn’t help but want to push Walter along and see his character arc through. I can hardly blame them. Stiller brings a sympathetic nuance to the man’s personality, a kind of hunched tentativeness that’s easy enough to relate with. The perfection of his self-improvement narrative is almost how he’d dream it. But the film dare not suggest such a possibility. Where the film goes wrong is erring on the side of too much earnestness, a fuzzy and warm belief in the power of sentimental uplift to do good to the soul. It’s a comfortable erring, but one that feels a little empty all the same.

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