Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Rates:  *  *

Scenario 1

Walter: When I was younger, I used to work at Papa John’s.

Other Guy: What’s that?

Walter: Oh, it’s like a pizza joint. Awesome pizza!

Other Guy: I like pizza!

Walter: Yeah!

Other Guy: What’s it called again?

Walter: Papa John’s.

Other Guy: Papa John’s?

Walter: Papa John’s.

Other Guy: Papa John’s… Okay. I might try it next time I’m out and about. Papa John’s!

Walter: Papa John's.

Scenario 2

Walter: Yeah hi, I’m trying to use my eHarmony Super Awesome Dating Account, but I’ve got a problem.

eHarmony Worker: What’s your problem beautiful?

Walter: It’s so awesome I can hardly believe it!

eHarmony Worker: A-ha ha ha ha ha!!!

Walter: A-ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!

eHarmony Worker: That’s funny. You’re really funny! And wonderful. All of our customers are wonderful!!

Walter: You really make me feel good about myself.

eHarmony Worker: You should feel good about yourself. Because you’re just super awesome.

Walter: That’s why I opened the account!

eHarmony Worker: A-ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!

Walter:  A-ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!  And all this for only $500 a year!!

Walter Mitty is a daydreamer. Unless you've been living on Mars these past seventy years (the original short story, ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,’ was published in 1939) you probably know this; the book is famous and there have been adaptations before.

For this new incarnation he’s been updated somewhat; he’s now a shy, insular, apartment  dweller in New York with a job about to swallowed by the pace of internet driven progress. And he’s also now a man quite happy to prostitute himself for a multimillion dollar company when the opportunity arises (see Scenarios 1 & 2 above).

The film opens with Mitty (Ben Stiller) sweating over whether or not to send a dating site message to a co-worker he’s sweet on. He stares at her profile, absorbs all of the (scant) details, absorbs them again, grits his teeth and decides to send it… then chickens out and sits down. The opening credits rolls as he fidgets and fusses and keeps changing his mind. And then, when he does pluck up the courage to hit ‘Enter’... his computer crashes. It’s a lovely sequence; neatly establishing the central character and making some nice points about life in the modern age. Unfortunately, the film pretty much peaks at this point, barely two minutes in.

Mitty works in the basement at Life magazine, transforming photo negatives into their famous, lavish images (something of an anachronism; Life went under more than 10 years ago). He’s good at his job but quiet and his colleagues think him a bit of an odd bod.

But when an aggressive new firm acquires the magazine and decides to turn it into an internet only publication, and sack pretty much everyone, Mitty is spurred to break out of his low key rut. He hits the road looking for Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), adventurous news photographer and grumpy iconoclast, hoping to track down a copy of a missing photo Sean had submitted for Life’s last cover. Mitty's travelogue takes him to Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan and one zany adventure after another (and the film makers really show their inventive side with their relentless plugging of Papa John's and eHarmony in these far flung locations).

Which creates something of a problem.

The original point of TSLoWM I took to be something like;

·         Daydreaming is nice.

·         But daydreaming is no substitute for real life.

·         Real life can be nice too if you give it a chance.

Which is a bit trite, but pretty solid. But instead of this, the movie opts for;

·         Daydreaming is nice.

·         But daydreaming is no substitute for real life...

·         ... providing your real life is crazier than what you've been daydreaming!

In other words, the movie has no point at all. And, after the opening half hour, it stops referencing Mitty's imaginings in any case. They seem to exist in the film solely to give the director (Stiller again) a chance to fool around with some fairly silly, and admittedly fun, sequences before the National Geographic photo journal takes over the plot. Towards the end of it all, Mitty says something like, 'And you know, I don't do that daydreaming stuff anymore...' and I thought, 'Oh yeah! The daydreaming thing!'

After two hours of global roving it felt like the plot device from some other film.

And long before the central character does, you know his wanderings are going to bring him out of his shell and help him get closer to his dream girl. It's as obvious as the realisation that eHarmony helped fund the production of the movie. And this can only mean that a certain inevitability hangs over proceedings, regardless of how hard everyone tries to keep it light and quirky.

So this goes to the heart of what is wrong with this film; it is neither funny enough to work as a comedy, nor effecting enough to work as a drama, nor fresh enough to work as a romance. The cast tries hard, the exotic locations provide some lush eye candy and the acerbic parody of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (a much worse film than this one) made me laugh out loud, but otherwise this is a misfire in nearly every respect.

Mostly unsatisfying to everyone bar the corporate sponsors.

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