Fantasy and Reality Coexist in Stiller’s Walter Mitty
It feels as if a new version of James Thurber’s classic short storyThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty has been percolating around Hollywood for ages. I seem to remember Jim Carrey being involved with a remake at one point or another in the recent past, while a whole cavalcade of directors both big and small have had their hand in the ring as far as shepherding it into theatres was concerned.
But it took director/star Ben Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad (The Weather Man) to ultimately fashion a new version a Hollywood studio would be willing to get behind, trying their mutual best to stay true to the inherent themes of Thurber’s story while also separating themselves from the popular 1947 production starring Danny Kaye. They attempt to make the fanciful tale a product of the here and now and not an artifact of its time, fashioning a fantasy speaking to the best aspects of the human experience the whole family can in some part relate to.
While not meeting with total success, I must admit I enjoyed this new take on Thurber’s memorable tale more than I anticipated. Stiller and Conrad have managed to make a movie about grabbing life by the horns, about how it’s never too late to reach for greatness, and while dreams and aspirations do, and should, change over time the ability to find new ones to struggle and aspire towards is a gift worth being thankful for. I could relate to many of the more whimsical elements of the film with striking clarity, and as such my heart was soaring by the time our hero’s journey reached its readily expected end.
That doesn’t make watching the film a completely smooth ride. There is a herky-jerkiness to the first third that’s disconcerting, the fanciful, the farcical and the fictional uneasily sharing screen time with hardened real world emotional peaks and valleys that don’t always feel like being worthy of wandering around. As comforting and pleasing as the truths Stiller and Conrad come to are they are unabashedly obvious, making what ultimately happens something far less than surprising.
While the basic bones of Thurber’s original prose remain, Conrad takes daydreamer Walter Mitty (Stiller) into the 21st century by making him a photographic imager, also known as a ‘negative asset manager,’ for LIFE Magazine currently dealing with the institution’s transition from print media to a new existence on the World Wide Web. When the latest photo from renowned journalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), intended to be the cover for the final issue, goes missing, inspired by editorial assistant Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) Walter steps out of his own fantasies and into hardened reality as he sets out into the unknowable in order to find the missing negative.
Some of Mitty’s daydreams are remarkably effective, an early one showing him fantasizing bursting into a burning building to save a woman’s cat while also leading the remainder of the residents to safety is suitably, unapologetically silly. Others, though, are less effective, a ghastly aerial battle between the magazine’s sheltered employee and incoming vice president Ted Hindricks (Adam Scott), in charge of both its dismantling as well as the transition to being an online publication, is a hyperbolic catastrophe that takes forever to come to an end. There is an uneasy balance between the two sides of Mitty’s world that doesn’t always connect, and it isn’t until he steps off the plane in Greenland that the movie truly finds its footing and begin to matter.
I have to say, those sequences starting in Greenland are easily the film’s best, Stiller balancing all the aspects of the tale with blissful ebullience. A musical sequence combining Wiig and David Bowie into one is remarkable, while a sequence of our hero skateboarding through an apparently secluded mountaintop village on the eve of an unanticipated volcanic eruption is emotionally sublime. It is during these sequences I could really feel Walter come alive and take charge in ways he’d always been fearful to do beforehand, making his ultimate third act transformations all the more believable in the process. My heart leapt during these passages, and had the film been a short it could have ended with his somewhat triumphant arrival back in New York instead of going on for another hour and I wouldn’t have minded one single bit.
But it does go on, and while there are numerous moments of magic remaining (the anticipated meeting up of Mitty and O’Connell is worth the wait) certain aspects, not the least of which is a running gag involving matchmaking website eHarmony and the wasting of both Shirley MacLaine and Kathryn Hahn in underwritten roles, leave a lot to be desired. It is during these portions that Stiller and Conrad’s handling begins to lack the same inspiration and ingenuity of the proceedings portions, and while the movie remains continually worthwhile there’s still a little something lacking that’s impossible to completely ignore.
Be that as it may I’m more than willing to give The Secret Life of Walter Mitty a pass for a great majority of its missteps if only because its heart remains true throughout, even if elements hidden inside of it are less than perfect. While Stiller has made better films as a director, Tropic Thunder comes to mind, this in many ways is his most ambitious, and I admit the smile he put on my face as it came to an end was one I felt was justifiably earned. Thurber’s story is still the only classic element, but that doesn’t make the film less worthwhile. While fantasy and reality don’t always inhabit the same plane with comforting ease the fact the conversation they’re having remains worth having no matter what is a superlative daydream I didn’t want to see come to an end.
Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)