Directed by: Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Adam Scott, Shirley Maclaine, Patton Oswalt
“Oscar buzz over Ben Stiller‘s new film”
Various fragmentations of the above sentence will almost certainly be cropping up in various places over the next month, as the great award circus/juggernaut rolls around, right on time. While any recognition for comedic actors has been famously quashed in the past, Jonah Hill (of all people) proved in 2011’s Moneyball that just saying sensible things with a straight face is enough to garner a Best Supporting Actor nomination. With that in mind, let’s see what Ben ‘Tower Heist/Little Fockers/Night at the Museum 2/The Watch‘ Stiller has to offer.
‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty‘ was originally a short story written by James Thurber, published in The New Yorker in 1939. It follows a thoroughly ineffectual man through his woefully mundane day, with small events becoming the catalyst for his fantastical daydreams. A modern adaptation has been on the cards for a long time, with various directors (Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg, Gore Verbinski) and actors (Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, Mike Myers, Sacha Baron Cohen). Eventually, Stiller landed both roles, directing his first feature since 2008’s Tropic Thunder.
Walter Mitty (Stiller) is quiet, unassuming and diffident. His expenditures are boring, and his online profiles remains blank. He hasn’t ‘been’ anywhere or ‘done’ anything even vaguely noteworthy. Most of this awkwardness stems from his tendency to drift off at work, even in mid conversation, to his own heroic fantasies. He works at Life magazine, in charge of the photographic archives, and pines after mild colleague Cheryl (Wiig).
Due to the rise in online media, Life is to print its last issue before going digital. For the occasion, adventurer/photographer Sean O’ Connell (Penn) has sent through a selection of negatives, including a fabled ‘Negative 25’, that supposedly contains the quintessence of all human nature. Negative 25 is conspicuously absent however, and under pressure of downsizing from his hideous new boss (Scott), Walter decides to track down O’Connell through Greenland and find the vital last cover photo. Hopefully it won’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that Walter has all sorts of real world adventures, learns a lot of life lessons and achieves a very bendy character arc by the end of the film.
Film is a very pure form of escapism, a vast array of universes we can all place ourselves into, even years after their viewing. Walter Mitty does a sublime job of reflecting these back at the audience in all their camp and chaotic glory, sometimes excessively so. The cinematography is sublime, showcasing the life and scenery in Greenland and Iceland beautifully (though I’m sure many native inhabitants will object to the oblique ‘folksy’ tag placed upon them).
The performances are restrained at least, with Stiller and Wiig managing to find a very natural chemistry. Heavyweights such as Penn, and MacLaine as Mitty’s mother, do not need to expend themselves too much in this piece. The only real hamming comes from Scott, who is forced to take the ‘obnoxious boss’ trope to uncomfortable lengths.
The one major criticism is the contrast between the film’s implied messages and the unfortunate ways that ambitious projects like this have to get funding. The screenplay says, “Be different. Mindless drones are bad. Find yourself.”, whilst all we experience on screen is “Date with eHarmony. Eat at Papa Johns. Buy our soundtrack.” The usual indie tracks, along with a notable Bowie number, are undoubtedly uplifting songs, but are just as commonplace on any generic ‘life is for living’ commercial, selling the latest high-pixel camera or 4×4 off-roader.
For most of the 2 hour running time, the audience is swept along with the barrage of sight and sound. And it is a hugely cathartic experience, being shown our twenty-something fantasies lived out, that dreams can come true. When the rush ended however, a small part of me felt that the pre-feature advertisements were cut from very similar cloth.
There may be an outside chance of this film gaining major awards nominations, aptly odds of winning should be outside their wildest dreams. For those of you expecting an Affleck-esque transformation on this particular Ben: it’s worth noting that Night at the Museum 3 is currently in production.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is out on 26th December.