The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
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.