Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

As was true of the 1947 film starring Danny Kaye, the new version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is loosely based on the short story of the same name by James Thurber about an otherwise unexceptional man who daydreams heroic realities rather than deal with the far less exciting truth of his humdrum existence. As with Kaye's film, the lesson of the film is Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) finally having a real adventure and learning up to stand-up for himself in the world outside of his imagination.

Set in the final days of Life Magazine's print edition, Walter spends most of his time daydreaming about what he'd like to actually say to his ridiculously-bearded new boss (Adam Scott) and a fellow co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) whom he's fancied from afar for some time. The loss of the negative for the magazine's final issue forces Walter out of his comfort zone, with a little prompting from Cheryl (both the real and Walter's imagined versions), to seek out the photographer (Sean Penn) and find the missing negative.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the kind of sweet and funny feel-good tale about a man learning a life lived can be more rewarding than a life imagined. Is it cotton candy? Sure, but if you're looking for something a lightweight in the slew of serious Oscar contenders you could certainly do worse than spend a couple of hours with Walter's journey.

The film boasts some impressive special effects, but despite the fun of Walter's early visions (which become crazier and crazier before ending in a battle with his boss on the city streets) I actually enjoyed the film more once the effect budget wasn't being so obviously blown on huge sequences. The effects I enjoyed most were the more subtle use of blending obvious CGI into scenes (such as in subway signs or the outside of Walter's office building) to enhance the scope or visual of a specific scene or merely to help tell the story. Even with the more overly-elaborate sequences, the visual style of the film is a definite strength.

I didn't know what to expect going in, but I enjoyed myself far more than I expected. Stiller is better than he's been in a long time with a script that allows him to play both the quiet-spoken nerd and hero, and Wiig is nicely cast as the catalyst to push Walter into the journey he's always needed to make. My favorite of all of Walter's imagined scenes is the simplest involving Cheryl singing Walter onward when he considers prematurely ending his journey.

Along with Wiig, Penn, and Scott, the film boast several odd characters Walter encounters on his journey most notably Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as a drunken helicopter pilot and Patton Oswalt as an eHarmony customer service representative who, over the various phone conversations, is the only witness to Walter's remarkable journey all over the world. Although the set-up to Oswalt's character is rather cheap, I enjoyed the use of the dating site rep who kept in touch with his new favorite customer. The film blatantly uses product placement in spots (most notably Life, eHarmony, and Papa Johns) but because each is worked well into the humor of the story, and the history of Walter's character, I wasn't bothered by their usage.

In tone the film has a similar message to Stranger Than Fiction (a more ambitious and memorable film), even if it isn't as well written with a far simplified message of grabbing life and living it to its fullest. And I'll admit the film looses some steam as Walter's journey comes to an end and the character makes a discovery that the audience will have figured out well-before our main character.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty may not be a great film, but it's solid holiday fare that offers Stiller the opportunity to direct himself in his first really enjoyable live-action performance since 2008's Tropic Thunder. That's five years! You can certainly knock it for its schmaltzy message or product placement, but in the end The Secret Life of Walter Mitty delivers in ways many of Stiller's forgettable offbeat comedies can't because, schmaltzy or not, this one has a heart.

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