Release: Christmas Day 2013
By the seem of things, Mr. Stiller has been secretly getting all the little memos we, the patient viewers, have continued to slip underneath his door over the years, beseeching, imploring the actor to put his dormant dramatic sensibilities to good use for once — actually act in a movie instead of being the butt of everyone’s jokes. His directorial return with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty confirms that he’s been taking heed of the advice, because not only is this movie one of the more unique experiences of the year, Ben Stiller is simply wonderful as the titular lead character.
An odd little man, Walter is by all accounts Stiller at his best. His hunched demeanor packs all of his signature quirks into a nervous frame, a character that immediately screams ‘introvert,’ but in a fascinating, charming way. As a performer, Stiller hasn’t been this affable in years.
As a director, he might not have been better, either; although his Tropic Thunder was a stroke of genius in itself. Walter’s a difficult man to gauge because he’s perpetually lost in thought, and what’s more, his modest real-world status as a photo-negative developer at Life Magazine, operating out of the building’s dingy basement, is comically off-set by this tendency of his to daydream on a large, epic scale.
It’s quite clear he couldn’t resist exploiting this particularly inventive aspect to his retelling of the 1939 James Thurber short story.
Within the opening half hour we go on a number of mini-adventures that yank us out of the otherwise pretty poorly-written ‘present day’ narrative and into a world only a man like Walter Mitty could dream up. In these moments he can survive falling out of skyscrapers, jump as if he were on the moon, and take on any foe with confidence; he’s also a bona fide Romeo, dramatically courting his real-world crush Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) and can speak different languages. These moments are so immersive as to almost cause panic early on, begging the question of whether Stiller has enough material as a director to sustain this film’s fantastical elements for nearly two hours.
Though the second act snaps out of this crazy daydreaming phase, and ‘panic’ suddenly becomes a pretty glaring exaggeration. Stiller fortunately wrings out just enough entertaining interaction with supporting characters in some gorgeous locations to tip the scales in favor of Walter Mitty‘s decidedly more conventional, but equally endearing latter half.
When Mitty’s daydreaming is one day matched by his real-world experiences as he goes on a worldwide hunt for one of Life’s staff photographers, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), the true joy of this film begins. It is his negative that he must develop for the last printed edition of Life magazine and his jerk of a boss has threatened him multiple times about it.
Adam Scott provides the film’s greatest flaw in the over-acted and overly aggressive Ted Hendricks, the self-proclaimed “director of the transition” — a man whose only interest is publishing all content online now. He couldn’t care less about the current staff, and much less the awkward Mitty, who is supposed to be providing the cover photo of this last physical edition. In the process of trying to recover this photo (and thus an attempt to keep himself employed), Mitty embarks on a trip to the isolated regions of Greenland and later, Iceland by way of dumb luck but moreover a newfound determination to do something with his life.
The pace at which his life suddenly changes is inspiring and uplifting, and the second act and into the third provides a wonderful montage of beautiful landscapes and free-flowing travel sequences that instantly seduce viewers into believing they’re on this journey with Mitty. The events may happen rather conveniently, haphazardly. Sometimes the plot develops to a degree that can possibly strain credulity.
But just as Walter Mitty is spurred to move on from spot to spot, so must anyone trying to allow themselves to enjoy the spectacle. Sure this story is bound together rather flimsily and certain characters are better written than others — Stiller and Wiig turn out to be a surprisingly romantic pairing, as an example — but nitpicking the details to this wonderful adventure film is like spitting in a child’s face. You just don’t do it.
Stiller’s latest film is kind-hearted and well-intentioned, even if imperfect. It’s a journey that should be given further credit for remaining within the family-friendly PG-rating, which — especially from a comedic standpoint — can technically be viewed as a further restriction on particular content Stiller could have used. It’s safely inside, though there are one or two moments where there’s some obvious holding back.
All the same, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is successful since it balances a great amount of fanciful drama with Stiller’s welcomed quirky and more rugged appeal so the moments that don’t quite work are instantly overshadowed by some wonderful moments — arguably some of 2013’s finest. This is a life that most people are going to want to know the secret to making for themselves.
Recommendation: A very nice (re?)turn for Stiller in a decidedly more mature and likable role that is enhanced by his own directorial oversight. Performances all around are strong, and Wiig offers a charming performance that helps to reflect Stiller’s conscientious awkwardness. Combine the two leads’ steadily more compelling repartee with the fascinating backdrops and you’ve got one of the most interesting and genuine films of the holiday season.
Running Time: 125 mins.
Quoted: “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”
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