Skip to main content

No, I just, like, zoned out for a second.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
(2013)

At least this second big screen adaptation of James Thurber’s short story is no by-the-numbers remake. Unfortunately, few of Ben Stiller’s and writer Steve Conrad’s choices in this very different take to the Danny Kaye original are positive ones. It’s all the more disappointing, as Stiller’s directorial work has been a consistent bright spot in a career frequently marred by a tiresome comedy klutz persona spread across chasm of undifferentiated movies. One suspects the problem may be too little involvement in the screenplay, as on paper at least the writer-director of Zoolander and Tropic Thunder is a good fit for a movie reliant on extravagant fantasy sequences and witty satire. That The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has little of either speaks to something going very wrong at the conception phase.


Of course, one shouldn’t be arguing over what a movie isn’t (compared to, say an original) but rather what it is. And what Walter Mitty 2013 is, is a fantasy (I’d hardly say a comedy, as there are few laughs) of self-actualisation. But self-actualisation where the self-actualiser has little to overcome and precious few markers of a subordinated personality. The substance of Walter Mitty is so paper thin that it must live or die on the cinematography. Stiller makes some of the best looking comedies around, a rarity in the point-and-shoot world of US laughers. Unfortunately, without the chuckles, the images just sit there looking pretty, and, without any real conflict or motivation for our central character, he merely goes through the motions of a wholly undemanding recapturing of his “lost” youth.


I’ve remarked before that I’m not in the anti-remake boat. I don’t think there’s any principle to be adhered to other than: have a good reason to want to do it. Hollywood has been remaking movies and churning out sequels since its inception, but each new generation moans about the practice as if it’s only now marring creativity or adventurousness. There’s no reason not to remake Walter Mitty. The opportunity to take flight in a sporadic fantasy world is ever-relevant and appealing fuel for humorous diversions. And it isn’t as if James Thurber had anything good to say about the 1947 picture, which came a mere eight years after his short story, or The Public Life of Danny Kaye as he maligned it. Thurber wrote a dissatisfied letter to Life magazine on the subject; can it be a coincidence that Stiller’s Mitty works for (the now-defunct) Life? If not, it’s a dubious shout-out; however dismissive of Norman Z McLeod’s film Thurber was, he would surely have been even less pleased with Stiller’s unpersuasively upbeat jolly.


Notwithstanding Thurber’s lack of appreciation, the original ranks among Danny Kaye’s three or four best movies. In it, he is a put-upon escapist proofreader who becomes entangled in a real life adventure and so learns the mettle to deal with life. Thurber includes no such character arc in this story, nor is there any real life drama. One might argue a real world adventure detracts from the fantasy sequences, and the whole point is escapism as a means to avoid life, but without such a device its difficult to see how the brief story could engage as a feature length one. Should Walter Mitty even find a means to triumph in the real world? Even more in Stiller’s version there isn’t a movie if he doesn’t. The fantasy sequences are neither memorable nor clever. There’s nothing even approaching the iconic “ta-pocketa-ta-pocketa-ta-pocketa” found in both the Thurber story and the Kaye movie (even if trying to avoid it, you’d have though Stiller would recognise he needed something just as arresting). It’s all very curious, almost as if he didn’t really have a clue why the original picture and story were appealing in the first place.


It is perhaps understandable the route of having Mitty involved in a criminal plot was avoided, as that is still the standard for any everyman-breaks-out-of-his-boring-world comedy. One suspects this was a fixture throughout the many redrafts and stars and directors throughout the project’s 20 years of development hell. It was a Jim Carrey joint for the longest time (although somehow, somewhere, Eric Bogosian may have been involved even earlier; difficult to countenance, I know), and his directorial partners at various points included Ron Howard (terrible idea, look at the mess he has made of his few fantasy projects), Chuck Russell and Steven Spielberg (superficially a good match, but then recall how successful his only straight remake Always is). Also in the frame along the way were directors Mark Waters and Gore Verbinski (who retains a producer credit) and stars Owen Wilson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Will Ferrell and Mike Myers (the latter two and Carrey are perhaps most appealing to any wanting something of the “Kaye Unleashed” spirit of the original).


Without misdeeds, there must be (mis-) adventures, so Conrad has instead settled on a quest. Walter is a negative asset manager (of the film variety) who is unable to locate the vital negative of star Life photojournalist Sean O’Connell.  Life is set to close shop and continue online only, requiring numerous lay-offs. To facilitate this transition, Adam Scott’s Managing Director Ted Hendricks has been brought in. O’Connell’s picture is destined to be the cover of the last print issue. Unlike Kaye’s Mitty, this Walter has little in the way of encumbrances. His family are doting (mum Shirley MacLaine and supremely irritating sister Kathryn Hahn) and he has the meagerest of crises of confidence in wooing co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig; great, as if that needs to be said, but served a thoroughly undercooked love interest role). It isn’t like Walter’s a failure; O’Connell values him as the master preserver of his work of 16 years standing. His zone-outs, that announce he is off to fantasyland, are relatively unobtrusive. He’s also far from a bumbling fool, as he is a one-time shit-hot skateboard kid.  All that is counting against him is Hendricks being a prick, and it simply isn’t enough to inspire this quest or root for it. He’s doing perfectly well with Cheryl without needing an impetus to boost his confidence.


And so, when he sets of on his mission to track down Sean (I was half expecting there to be no 25th negative; that he had set out a breadcrumb trail to encourage Walter to realise himself, so upfront is the movie about achieving one’s inner unrealised whatever), each new challenge isn’t really much of one. He can leap from helicopters, dodge sharks, skateboard across Iceland, powwow with Afghan warlords. Without breaking a sweat. So what exactly is the picture about again? Where’s the struggle for growth when it’s all there served on a plate?


Conrad wrote the underrated The Weather Man for Verbinksi, so perhaps he came aboard under Gore. Where that picture had a bit of downbeat heart, his Mitty bears more resemblance to the unfiltered feel-good of Pursuit of Happyness. That picture at least had a rags-to-riches trajectory, though. We don’t even superficially care about what Stiller’s Walter has in store. As noted, the fantasy sequences hardly inspire. He saves a dog from a burning building, has a fight (or two) with his boss, appears as a bronzed explorer (recalling Zoolander's Blue Steel/Magnum more than anything, but without raising a smile), has a bizarre (in a woeful, rather that whacky sense) Benjamin Button interlude and shows up on Conan (now, that’s loopy!)


Only one actually has the kind of effect on the plot it should, as he imagines Cheryl singing Space Oddity, which inspires him to board a helicopter. But, by this point, the spectacular scenery, courtesy of cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, has taken over and ensures the fantasy holds no precedence. If anything, his world of dreams is weak in comparison. Maybe this is the point, but has Stiller really thought through the message he is sending out? That the only point in dreaming is if you aren’t sufficiently fulfilled? He even says it at the end, when he admits that he has been daydreaming “Lately, less” and the responses is “Good, good”. Is that good? Was Walter suffering from some truly aberrant condition that needed remedy? In Stiller’s mind, yes. But I guess he’s the type of millionaire 40-something who can bring about acute insights through a few skateboard flips against stunning vistas. Speaking of which, the Stretch Armstrong moment in Iceland is frankly baffling. How stupid are Icelanders supposed to be, that they’d exchange a crappy rubber man for skateboard?


It’s surprising that there are so few laughs in here. It’s all utterly sincere, which one would expect to be anathema to Stiller. Scott wrestles a few chuckles from behaving odiously, but Stiller, Wiig, and Patton Oswalt (as an online dating customer relations guy; how much product placement is there in here? On the other hand, does product placement have any effect if you don’t know it’s a real product? I hadn’t even heard of eHarmony before) are in barren territory. Stiller presumably thought all the positive affirmations would be undermined by his usual approach. But this smoothed-out ride limits the picture on every level. When everything comes so easily it can’t really be called a hero’s journey, making the absent of the diversion of laughs all the more glaring. Penn’s rugged explorer comes on as an embodiment of the manly ideal Walter aspires to, but it’s an indifferent piece of casting and undemanding performance.


What the picture does have is visual sense. The imagery is frequently dazzling, with locations, colours and camera speeds that pop off the screen. It’s a shame this skill is in service of something so fragile and undemanding. From Walter running by a wall of Life posters that show him on the covers, to planes taking off on a billboard runway, to Walter skating down a glacier, Stiller the director has a sharp eye for the sumptuous (Penn’s beckoning finger is less effective). He really should direct more. And maybe act less.


There’s something a little repellently self-congratulatory and indulgent about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It’s an admirable piece of technical filmmaking but an almost wholly empty experience. Walter Mitty has no mountain to climb, only a volcano to effortlessly traverse. He needs make no demands on our emotions because Stiller the director is always on hand with a “rousing” piece of soundtrack (Arcade Fire, really?!!) telling us just how he thinks we should feel, and a choice sequence of slow motion to rub it in. This would be stunningly effective, master-manipulative filmmaking if only anyone had remembered to put in anything or anyone to care about.


***


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.

Repo Man (1984)
In fairness, I should probably check out more Alex Cox’s later works. Before I consign him to the status of one who never made good on the potential of his early success. But the bits and pieces I’ve seen don’t hold much sway. I pretty much gave up on him after Walker. It seemed as if the accessibility of Repo Man was a happy accident, and he was subsequently content to drift further and further down his own post-modern punk rabbit hole, as if affronted by the “THE MOST ASTONISHING FEATURE FILM DEBUT SINCE STEVEN SPIELBERG’S DUEL” accolade splashed over the movie’s posters (I know, I have a copy; see below).

This popularity of yours. Is there a trick to it?

The Two Popes (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ricky Gervais’ Golden Globes joke, in which he dropped The Two Popes onto a list of the year’s films about paedophiles, rather preceded the picture’s Oscar prospects (three nominations), but also rather encapsulated the conversation currently synonymous with the forever tainted Roman Catholic church; it’s the first thing anyone thinks of. And let’s face it, Jonathan Pryce’s unamused response to the gag could have been similarly reserved for the fate of his respected but neglected film. More people will have heard Ricky’s joke than will surely ever see the movie. Which, aside from a couple of solid lead performances, probably isn’t such an omission.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917 (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.

This is one act in a vast cosmic drama. That’s all.

Audrey Rose (1977)
(SPOILERS) Robert Wise was no stranger to high-minded horror fare when he came to Audrey Rose. He was no stranger to adding a distinctly classy flavour to any genre he tackled, in fact, particularly in the tricky terrain of the musical (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) and science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain). He hadn’t had much luck since the latter, however, with neither Two People nor The Hindenburg garnering good notices or box office. In addition to which, Audrey Rose saw him returning to a genre that had been fundamentally impacted by The Exorcist four years before. One might have expected the realist principals he observed with The Andromeda Strain to be applied to this tale of reincarnation, and to an extent they are, certainly in terms of the performances of the adults, but Wise can never quite get past a hacky screenplay that wants to impart all the educational content of a serious study of continued existence in tandem w…