Friday, January 3, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Is Ben Stiller’s extraordinary talent enough?

     After we saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Kaylee said, “I didn’t realize Ben Stiller was so hot,” and this gave me hope.  Hope that twentysomethings can relate to a prodigiously talented, yet somehow underrated, fortysomething who has something very real to say about what it means to live a small
or medium life in a country and culture that worships the loud, big, and moneyed.  I’m not certain that fortyplussomethings care that much about seeing movies that are about people in cinemas anymore.  To paraphrase George Lucas, 

directors either make films about people or about things.  Lucas, Cameron, and Singer have devoted their careers to movies about things; Scorsese, Eastwood, Allen, Eastwood, and Holofcener have focused on people; Spielberg and Bigelow have tried to have it both ways.  Netflix is winning the viewing war for movies, while serious, humane work shows up on premium TV channels and the gentler stuff lands on the Hallmark Channel or ABC Family.

     Walter Mitty was originally a James Thurber short story, published in 1939 about an ordinary guy, who daydreamed leading great adventures to escape his humdrum job and nagging wife.  Danny Kaye played the part in 1948 and, though it adhered more closely to the story than this contemporary version, Kaye never seemed ordinary.  
Walter Mitty's Imaginary World
Stiller does come across like a regular, intelligent, shy man about to have his professional and personal rug pulled out from under him.  The project has been waiting around in Hollywood limbo for about twenty years and gone through numerous writers, directors, and stars until Stiller decided and was able to cover two with Steve Conrad providing the script.  There’s a timelessness and dated quality about Life magazine closing – it actually did so in 2007, though at its peak, to quote Sondheim’s Company, “Here’s to the girls who stay home/Aren’t they too much?/Clutching a copy of Life/Just to keep in touch.”  However, its motto is the theme for the movie and the driving force for the plot.  The movie seems to be commenting about an era that has passed, though the conflict between art and commerce, quality and quantity, heart and pizzazz is ongoing in American culture.

Walter Mitty on His Quest to Find the Lost Photographer
     The storyline works because we keep getting unexpected details about Walter Mitty’s earlier life, while he endeavors during his Grail-like quest to find a lost photograph and himself.  Fittingly, in a down turned world, Mitty is the Negative Assets Manager.  It holds the key to the final issue, which Mitty needs if he’s to save face before his asshole boss (master of snarky suave Adam Scott); he knows he’ll probably lose his job either way.  
Dryburgh's Cinematography
Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography is clear and gorgeous in the Iceland and Greenland sequences and some of the New York interior and exterior scenes look like they might have been designed by Piet Mondrian or Frank Stella.  Theodore Shapiro’s score pulsates beautifully, underpinning the struggles of decent people taking a chance.

Sean Penn as the World Photographer
     As an actors’ director, Stiller encourages good work from everyone.  I was glad to see Sean Penn cast as the glamorous photographer, who might be a chimera, especially in a sequence that actually presents true beauty.  Shirley MacLaine reminded me of why she was a wonderful actress years ago:  she really seems to listen to the other performers.  Kathryn Hahn doesn’t get to do a lot, which is a shame since I’m a big fan, but a little is better than not at all.  Kristen Wiig 

Dexter Lunching with Wiig and Stiller
is modest and charming.  She seems like a real person, rather than a performer, and she makes a low-key romantic partner.  The last performer that seemed like she was real, rather than a Hollywood goddess, in romantic comedies was Janene Garafalo, but that was over a decade ago.  She turned down too many invitations and wasn’t asked to the dance any longer.  Wiig needs to be careful because she has a tic, a hesitation about her, where she seems like she can’t believe anyone’s interested in her – not as a character, but as a performer.  I’m not saying she should turn glamorous or cutesy, but she can relax because she has lots of good will from SNL fans.  We want to see her perform.  

     In a season of family friendly potential blockbusters, animated and otherwise, and award hopefuls, Mitty may get lost.  I don’t think it will be a hit, but it’s worth being seen.

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