Directed by: Ben Stiller || Produced by: Samuel Goldwyn Jr., John Goldwyn, Stuart Cornfeld, Ben Stiller
Screenplay by: Steve Conrad || Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn, Patton Oswalt
Music by: Theodore Shapiro || Cinematography by: Stuart Dryburgh || Edited by: Greg Hayden || Country: Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, United States || Language: 114 minutes
Running Time: 114 minutes
I’ve long been a fan of Ben Stiller, particularly his writing and directing work, which to this day most people still don’t appreciate or are even aware of. As noted in an earlier post, I believe him to be one of the most underrated filmmakers working in Hollywood today, and was once again pleasantly surprised by his most recent directing effort which, thanks to my naive apprehension to the movie’s mixed critical reviews, I overlooked until now.
Frankly I’ve been kicking myself for waiting this long to see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (SLWM), the second film adaptation of James Thurber’s 1939 short story of the same name. The trailer caught my eye way back in early 2013 and, in hindsight, is completely accurate and up front about its narrative intentions and style (it’s not a deceptive or misleading trailer in other words). Me of little faith.
In any case, if you’ve seen any of the film’s marketing, you know exactly what you’re getting into, like I said. Though Stiller’s remake of the original daydreaming short story is more of a loose, spiritual successor re-imagined for modern times than a true adaptation, SLWM channels the lofty ideals and heartwarming feels of its literary source material effectively. True to its tagline, Stiller’s movie is about living instead of dreaming, going out into the world and living those adventures we all have floating around in our heads. This story is about taking those daydreams and turning them into reality. It’s not about pure fantasy, but rather simply walking out one’s own front door and having the courage to do new things we’ve always wanted to do.
SLWM’s theme is nothing new, but its execution and its cinematography, its visual realization of those feelgood dreams, is what makes it memorable. Stiller’s latest work is the type of introspective drama I can get on-board with, namely because its entire premise is about taking the internal and making it external. SLWM not only concerns a man making his thirst for adventure and personal expression realized, but also brings those daydream aspirations to vigorous life with a variety of fantasy-sequences that range from cute to touching to hilarious. All are visually alluring and take advantage of modern special-effects and digital filmmaking. It’s nice to see a film “modernize” a classic tale by taking advantage of its modern technological tool set, thereby actually justifying the modernization for once.
The film’s external adventure of Ben Stiller’s protagonist, a negative assets manager at the former LIFE print-magazine, further demonstrates gorgeous visuals and emotional globe-trekking, featuring dazzling location-shooting paired against a great soundtrack. Walter Mitty’s life jumps from New York to Greenland to Iceland to Afghanistan and beyond, showcasing an amazing visual and audio journey that somehow feels both fantastical and heavily relatable. Before our journey with Mitty is over, we jump off a helicopter flown by a drunk pilot into a raging ocean with ferocious sharks, we longboard across an Icelandic highway before narrowly avoiding a volcanic eruption, and even hike up the Afghani Himalayas while breaking cake with local warlords.
The magic of all this is that, no matter the impressiveness of the exotic backdrop or the eye-candy of the surrounding landscape, the camera’s focus always stays on Stiller’s Walter Mitty. While I can sort of understand critic’s anticipation of a grander, more expansive philosophical picture given the pulse-pounding music and epic visuals, SLWM is at its core an introspective character-study and makes no attempts to deviate from that premise at any point. The film is about a kindhearted but lonely and quiet individual who has to track down a negative print to avoid being fired, and during this journey he rediscovers his youthful love of adventure and regains his lost confidence. Done, straightforward, I got it!
The only parts of the film I disliked were its comical, one-dimensional antagonist (a horribly bearded Adam Scott) and its underused and somewhat cliched love interest (Kristen Wiig). Other than that, the film is smooth-sailing given how exclusively it focuses on Stiller’s perspective.
If you’re in the mood for a contemplative yet visually competent dramady, I recommend giving this a try. It’s definitely no laugh-out-loud comedy, but its got a likable lead with a straightforward, honest story and a touching message. The script doesn’t tread much, if any, new ground as far as thematic content and character analyses are concerned, but Stiller’s strong direction and eye for detail elevate it far above the average “thought-provoking” arthouse character-study. If nothing else, it’s nice to see a non-action-oriented film, a straightforward dramatic story that appreciates the visual medium of cinema and actually bothers being cinematic. I’ll drink to that.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Stiller is the star of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but more so from behind the camera than in front of it. His penchant for emotional soundtracks and visual splendor suite this story well. That being said, Stiller is no slouch in front of the camera either, though. Guest-stars Sean Penn and Patton Oswalt bring yet more heart to this feelgood story.
— However… Wiig is sweet, but underused. Scott ain’t sweet and needed better characterization.
? There’s a rhythm and rush these days, where the lights don’t move and the colors don’t fade… Leaves you empty with nothing but dreams, in a world gone shallow, in a world gone lean…