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

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Barbarians? You call us barbarians?

The Omega Man (1971)
(SPOILERS) Chuck Heston battles albino mutants in 1970s LA. Sure-fire, top-notch B-hokum, right? Can’t miss? Unfortunately, The Omega Man is determinedly pedestrian, despite gestures towards contemporaneity with its blaxploitation nods and media commentary so faint as to be hardly there. Although more tonally subdued and simultaneously overtly “silly” in translating the vampire lore from Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, the earlier The Last Man on Earth is probably the superior adaptation.

They say if we go with them, we'll live forever. And that's good.

Cocoon (1985)
Anyone coming across Cocoon cold might reasonably assume the involvement of Steven Spielberg in some capacity. This is a sugary, well-meaning tale of age triumphing over adversity. All thanks to the power of aliens. Substitute the elderly for children and you pretty much have the manner and Spielberg for Ron Howard and you pretty much have the approach taken to Cocoon. Howard is so damn nice, he ends up pulling his punches even on the few occasions where he attempts to introduce conflict to up the stakes. Pauline Kael began her review by expressing the view that consciously life-affirming movies are to be consciously avoided. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but you’re definitely wise to steel yourself for the worst (which, more often than not, transpires).

Cocoon is as dramatically inert as the not wholly dissimilar (but much more disagreeable, which is saying something) segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie directed by Spielberg (Kick the Can). There, OAPs rediscover their in…

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

I think it’s gratuitous, but whatever.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best
This is an update of a ranking previously published in 2018. I’d intended to post it months ago but these things get side-tracked. You can find the additions of Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home and a revised assessment of Ant-Man and the Wasp. There are also a few tweaks here and there.

Actually, I look like a can of smashed assholes.

The Arrival (1996)
(SPOILERS) I’m mostly an advocate of David Twohy’s oeuvre, from his screenplay for Warlock (Richard E Grant as an action hero!) onwards. In particular, like a number of writers turned aspiring directors (David Koepp, Scott Frank, the Gilroys) he has also shown himself to be proficient behind the camera. His Riddick movies (albeit only the first half of the third) are enjoyably B-ridden, while A Perfect Getaway is giddily delirious confection. I’d managed to mostly forget The Arrival, however, so with another similarly titled science fiction picture incoming, it seemed like a good time for a 20th anniversary revisit. The most surprising aspect is that, while Twohy’s direction is competent and script serviceable, this is Charlie Sheen’s movie through-and-through. In a good way.

That’s Charlie Sheen pre-tiger’s blood (here his character, the ludicrously named Zane Zaminsky even states “I don’t like blood”), also a few years shy of finding a more profitable home on televis…