Friday, January 3, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Bittersweet lament

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: PG, for occasional crude language and mild profanity, and a bit of fantasy violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.3.14

James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” originally appeared in The New Yorker on March 18, 1939, and subsequently went on to become one of the most frequently anthologized American short stories. It subsequently begat a charming 1947 Danny Kaye film, a 1960 stage adaptation — as part of the revue A Thurber Carnival — and a woefully underappreciated 1969-70 TV sitcom, My World and Welcome to It, that barely scraped along for a single season (and still hasn’t been released on home video, drat the luck!).

Walter (Ben Stiller), desperate to make an impression on Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), imagines
all sorts of adventurous meet-cute moments, as with this fantasy of appearing before her
as a suave and rugged Arctic explorer
Now, rather unexpectedly, Thurber’s whimsical day in the life of a mild-mannered nebbish has become a poignant lament on the demise of print journalism. From the wild ’n’ crazy Ben Stiller, no less. Who could have imagined?

Not I; that’s for certain.

Initially, though, Stiller’s film — he directed and co-scripted (with Steve Conrad), in addition to starring in the title role — lives down to my worst expectations. The opening half-hour slides clumsily into slapstick nonsense as we meet Walter, the “Negative Assets Manager” at Life Magazine. That droll job title actually refers to Walter’s selection and careful handling of the dynamic photographs that have characterized the publication.

He toils quietly in the Time Life Building’s sub-sub basement, helped only by a single assistant, Hernando (a disarmingly dry Adrian Martinez), while fantasizing about all the astonishingly brave and bold moments that have been captured on the images he has handled. Walter also imagines working up the courage to approach co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), invariably concocting a scenario that involves saving her life, or otherwise impressing her greatly.

When back on earth, he can barely muster a morning greeting ... despite the fact, as we can tell, that she’s clearly interested.

Although set in the modern day, Stiller and Conrad have re-invented Life’s timeline in order to suit their purpose: to follow Walter on what becomes the worst day of his life, as the magazine’s corporate owners announce the termination of its print edition. Just as life has passed Walter by, life now is about to pass Life by.

Even his job has been rendered superfluous, since the advent of digital photography has wholly transformed the art and craft of photojournalism. But not for one lone hold-out: the dynamic Sean O’Connell (a cameo by Sean Penn), an old-school camera jockey who’ll still roar toward the heart of an exploding volcano, snapping pictures while standing on the wings of a biplane.

But on the boring ground, the magazine’s conversion to dot-com oblivion is being overseen by the new Managing Director in Charge of The Transition: the consummately arrogant, presumptuously inconsiderate and relentlessly intimidating Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott). Sensing a victim who won’t fight back, the bullying Hendricks wastes no opportunity to belittle Walter ... who simply makes matters worse with his tendency to drift into occasional fantasy fugues.

And this is where Stiller almost loses control of his own film. Hendricks’ verbal jabs are too nasty to be funny, which certainly is a testament to Scott’s performance; we quickly hate this bean-counting little turd. Walter’s self-defensive revenge fantasies turn increasingly weird, climaxing with a super hero-style duel involving a Stretch Armstrong doll (!) and ripping up Manhattan’s streets with asphalt surfboards (!!).

Walter has received this toy as a gift from his sister, Odessa (Kathryn Hahn), an abrasive character who couldn’t be more annoying if she took lessons. Hahn overplays this role atrociously.

Matters reach their nadir during one of Walter’s “romantic” fantasies regarding Cheryl: an ill-advised riff on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that is weird and, frankly, unsettling. In the icky sense.

But, then, just as I was prepared to abandon ship, things take a turn. The eccentric O’Connell has sent what he insists is the photo of a lifetime, which Hendricks impulsively decides will become the cover of the final issue. The problem: Walter can’t find the damn slide, which rather mysteriously isn’t among all the other negatives in O’Connell’s package.

The eccentric photog likely knows what happened, but he never remains on the conventional radar; at last report, he’s rumored to be in Greenland. And so Walter, having endured one more belittling taunt from Hendricks, impulsively decides to track down the elusive photojournalist.

Or is Walter’s increasingly dangerous journey merely another of his wish-fulfillment daydreams?

Regardless of the answer to that question, something wonderful happens along the way: This film finds its heart. The script’s more earnest quality has been present all along, bubbling beneath the surface as we watch Life’s headquarters systematically dismantled by contemptuous corporate thugs who couldn’t care less about the magazine’s storied history; now this element of gravitas moves front and center.

In the process, Stiller’s performance — behind and in front of the camera — also transforms. Gone are the forced humor and bombastic tone; what emerges instead is a thoughtful observation on the nature of change, and the frustrating helplessness — the raw agony — experienced by those who hate to witness the passing of something truly magnificent.

Stiller has made clear, during interviews to publicize this film, that he genuinely mourns what has been happening to print publications in this increasingly digital 21st century. Online “publishing” may achieve its own greatness one day — although, at the moment, it’s as insufferably smug and insubstantial as this story’s Ted Hendricks — but it’ll never, ever achieve the universal impact that a single photo could generate, when viewed by the millions of readers back in the day, who eagerly awaited each issue of Life.

(At its peak, according to Erika Doss’ Looking at Life Magazine, about half of all Americans, 10 years and older, had seen one or more copies of the magazine during a 13-week period in 1950.)

Stiller is well-cast as Mitty, his often vacant expression nicely balanced by a desperate sincerity. We’ve often seen this guy, perhaps even been this guy, and we immediately understand and empathize with his desire for self-improvement. Who hasn’t wanted to get the girl, or tell off the new boss? Stiller also makes excellent use of his shy smile, just as he makes us understand that while Walter may indulge heavily in fantasies, he knows full well the disappointments often found in real life.

Wiig’s Cheryl is fully grounded: a cheerful woman who nonetheless has seen her share of disappointment. She’s one of this story’s stable elements; when Stiller and Scott overplay to the second balcony, in the film’s opening act, Wiig remains a welcome island of calm.

The same can be said of Shirley MacLaine, cast as Walter and Odessa’s mother: a genuinely sweet part granted considerable depth by an actress who speaks volumes with a single sidelong glance.

Patton Oswalt pops up as a computer-dating service IT rep who struggles to get some color into Walter’s online profile, and Penn is a genuine treat as O’Connell: every inch what we imagine a thrill-seeking photojournalist to be.

Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh makes the most of the story’s often exotic locations, most particularly the startling landscape and crystal-clear skies of Iceland. The film’s opening credits also are quite clever, with the text appearing on buildings, city streets and other bits of landscape. Nor does this gimmick cease with the credits; subliminal messages continue to appear unexpectedly, as Walter’s saga unfolds. It’s a nice touch.

I’ll therefore call Stiller’s take on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty two-thirds of a pretty good film. True, it has little to do with Thurber, aside from the all-important notion of wish-fulfillment, but — ultimately — that’s handled quite well.

And I share this Walter’s desire for a world where the likes of Life Magazine can continue to thrill, week after week.

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