Tuesday, December 31, 2013

In Theaters: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Walter Mitty poster

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is probably not a great film. It has a number of flaws, and signs of compromises made in the name of box office appeal. But there's something remarkable about it. It's often beautiful, meditative, and disarmingly sincere. It really isn't much of an adaptation of the short story and at many times seems to drift away from the very premise, but since fidelity to the source material and actual quality are two completely separate things, the worst that happens is the film gets a little unfocused. It has all the signs of the familiar Oscar-bait feel good picture, but its true atmosphere is more relaxed. And there's the very real danger that the conventional elements of the film, as well as its nature as an adaptation, will overshadow its very real and very odd strengths.

Mitty (as played by Ben Stiller) spends much of his life dreaming about possible adventures and action movie heroics, in between working at Life Magazine's photo archives. His primary interest, though, is his lovely co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), whose attention he's been trying to get without seeming too interested. However, the magazine is about to cease print publication, and the negative for the picture that's supposed to be their final cover has gone missing. The only way to track it down is to contact the photographer, old-fashioned adventurer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), who is… well, off the map. Fueled by a desire to make his life interesting, and a need to stave off the inquiries of his new boss (a perfectly cast Adam Scott), Walter heads off in search of O'Connell across Greenland, Iceland, and places further away.

So this is a very loose adaptation of the original story (the point of which, of course, is that Walter's adventures stay in his head), and this is the main obstacle the film faces with skeptical critics and everyone who has read the story. Thankfully for director Stiller and scripter Steven Conrad I have not, and more importantly, fidelity to a source is entirely orthagonal to film quality. If a film is well written, acted, shot, paced, etc., should we love it less because of its relation to another work of art which shares the same title? Even the familiar refrain of "Why did they even bother buying the rights" means little to me- they buy rights because original films are harder to market, and in any case if a company wants to throw money at authors and their estates for no good reason that's none of my business.

Even considering the film in a vacuum, however, it does seem a little odd to establish a character who leads a boring life and fantasizes about a better one, and to very quickly send him on a real-life adventure which removes much of the need to fantasize. The dream sequences in the film are superb, evoking the clichés of Hollywood action spectaculars and even having the subtle signifier of richer color saturation, but they start to trail off rather abruptly when Walter's actual journey begins.

What saves the film is that the real-life sequences have a power of their own. There is something vividly real and intense about Walter's travel to the frozen North, with subtle CG effects and the occasional fantasy enhancing gorgeous real-world imagery. The film is just plain beautifully photographed and features a lovely soundtrack, and there's a lot to be said for the picture as a purely sensory experience.

There is perhaps something predictable in the film embracing messages of going out and finding yourself and seizing the day and so on, but Stiller keeps the schmaltz reasonably in check. Kristen Wiig continues to prove that when given an actual character (as opposed to the one-note recurring roles she had on SNL), she's a splendid actress, and there's something very real and subtle about the characters' relationship even if the literal plot makes sure to check off a few clichés.

There's something just appealingly rare about this film- we've seen this story before, but not quite like this. As a director Ben Stiller is interested in images and the way we define ourselves in relation to them (his films before then have involved video dating, cable repairmen, and modeling), and in Walter Mitty he gives us a portrait of a man who has been surrounded by images which make him want to live a better life than he does. And he… may eventually realize that. Sentimental, maybe, but I refuse to consider that as any less valid than a story about the darker sides of human nature. I'm not entirely sure why I like this film so much. But I think there is something special here.

Based on the short story by James Thurber
Screenplay by Steve Conrad
Directed by Ben Stiller

No comments: