Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is Ambitious, but is Ambition always a Good Thing?

The Secret Life of of Walter Mitty (2 1/2 out of 5 Stars)
Directed by Ben Stiller (Tropic Thunder)
Written by: Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness)
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, and Shirley MacLaine

secret life of walter mitty trailer

Most people know Ben Stiller the actor; he is the man who dodged some balls, posed as a model, met the parents, kept the museum safe, and so much more.  Few people realize Stiller has always had a large behind the scenes role with many of his films, and his television work.  Stiller started out as directorial work way back in 1987 on Saturday Night Live, then did work on his own series The Ben Stiller show.  Stiller then went on to direct his first bigger film with Reality Bites, Zoolander, and Tropic Thunder.  The Secret Life of Walter is his most ambitious project to date.

The film follows Walter Mitty who works at Life Magazine during the final days.  Walter has always lived a quiet life trying to do right by his mother (MacLaine), and sister an aspiring actress (Kathryn Hahn).  In trying to do the best for his family, Walter loses his sense of adventure he once had and finds himself "zoning out" in everyday life where he escapes on adventures, or tries to impress his pretty co-worker Cheryl (Wiig). 

As the end of the magazing is at hand Walter tests his own sense of adventure through photographer Sean O'Connell (Penn) who has felt a kinship with Walter over the years.  Walter realizes a negative is missing, and through inspiration from Cheryl he embarks on adventure to track down O'Connell, the negative, and himself.

Let me start by saying I liked Mitty more than I thought I would, the film is visually stunning.  Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano, The Painted Veil) transports you into Walter's imagination, connecting the pieces of the advertising or every day subway station; he also transports you to Walter's actual adventures in Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan.  Dryburgh's work has involved immersing audiences into different worlds, and he does a marvelous job with this film.

I have to applaud Stiller for pushing himself as a director, over the years he has pushed himself to take on more challenging work.  Reality Bites was the personal 90s angst, while his next two films The Cable and Zoolander were funny they did not shake the core of Stiller as an artist.  Stiller found solid comedic ground in Tropic Thunder on of the funniest films of the 2000s, showing an edgier comedic side, and moving his direction in the right step.  Mitty is his best work as a director to date; he does his best with the material, and gives you a personal look at a man seeking to find refuge, but to wanting to soar, and find happiness.

While the film is good, the problem is that the film strays too far from the premise of the original 1947 with Danny Kaye.  The original film follows the misadventures in Walter's head in the original, while Stiller's ambition is a strength in this case its also the films weakness.  The script from Steve Conrad attempts something which tries to be too earnest in the sense that there is a blend of too many genres.  Stiller is growing as a director, but in this film he could have kept the visuals while maintaining a more grounded, and focused story.  

While some of the films smaller emotional sequences work the larger ones, which avoid subtlety like his meeting with O'Connell feel forced.  I'm all for sentimental films, but the sentiment needs to organic, and this film tends to force you to feel for this man who is often ill-defined.  I left asking who is Walter Mitty?  I also left wanting Papa John's, thinking about purchasing a Dell, and wondering if I joined E-Harmony would I get to meet Patton Oswalt.  The product placement in this film rivals m y worst film of the year, Man of Steel.

I admire Stiller's attempt, because I enjoyed the film more than I thought, and Wiig was great, more subtle than ever, but Mitty does not work as well as Ben Stiller hoped.

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