{film} an imagination realized

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walter mittyNatalya was admittedly anxious about seeing the Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013). She adores James Thurber’s 1939 short story as much as the rest of us, and we were all wondering, in our household anyway, what is the story Walter Mitty without his wife in the picture? Yet, a basis is found in the spirit of Thurber’s piece and how Stiller, with screen writer Steve Conrad, beautifully captures it in this contemporary interpretation.

Like Thurber’s Walter Mitty, the film’s hero played by Ben Stiller is prone to imagining an alternate reality in which his monochromatic existence is transformed into an action film or romantic drama sequence. There is a hilariously awesome sequence in the film in which Walter borrows from another highly imaginative short-story-turned-film: The Curious Case of  Benjamin Button, the 2008 film loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 short story. The shift into the magically real is sudden, seamless enough to catch the audience off-guard, and aids in a reality that grows more magical as the film progresses.

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{N loved this repetition in particular. Here, Walter is fantasizing, later he will be sporting ice/snow in beard as himself.}

walter mitty zoneWalter’s “zoning out” is socially awkward and becomes the focus of ridicule for the bullies in the film, but more than that, it is a symptom of a life not fully lived. Walter Mitty is 42 (which Douglas Adams fans will note) and negative assets is his job description for Life magazine whose motto is one the film adopts:

To see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to, to draw closer, to see and be amazed.

We are first introduced to Walter in his home where one cannot ignore his music collection; signalling culture, deep feeling, and should be more colorful than he otherwise appears. Engaged in the domestic chore of balancing a checkbook (not on-line) we see that Walter has more than a modest bank account (at least by my somewhat impoverished standards), so money is not holding him back. He is neat, quiet and shy when it comes to risks. He signs up to an on-line dating service and achingly deliberates sending a wink to a woman who has caught his interest, new co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristin Wiig). We are immediately moved by this character who wants more—and is frustrated by system errors. The loveliness in this film is how much it captures the messy, off-interrupted potential and longing of human characters.

The film and the narrative itself is fairly straightforward and predictable. The recently acquired Life is going on-line, and the company announces that the next issue will be its last in print. The cover will belong to legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) and film print #25—a negative lost from the roll sent to Negative Assets. Walter needs to find it or he’ll lose his already tenuous job position as Life is also laying-off. Partially awkward in social execution and narratively neat, Walter incorporates the fan of mysteries Cheryl to help him solve a photographic puzzle in order to hunt down the nomadic photographer.

walter mitty him and herRecent divorcee and mother of a tween-age (?) son, Cheryl seems to genuinely like Walter. And really, most do—the good people of the film anyway. [What is with arch-nemesis Ted Hendricks’ (Adam Scott’s) beard?! is it made to look fake, especially compared to Walter’s later (more manly?) whiskers?] Kristen Wiig, given relatively little screen time of her own to self-define, is a wonderful casting choice. We know she is funny, but like Ben Stiller who is also prone to the goofy and outlandish comedic turns, she tones down into the quietly identifiable troubles of the every-day existence. And bless it, the film allows her her age-lines and a son with whom Walter is awesome (and comfortable).

At one point Sean O’Connell says, “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” Wiig’s character is quietly beautiful, quirkily so, maybe. As is Walter who is modest in his proposals. O’Connell realizes that his renown exists in no small part to Walter who handles his negatives and presents the best of the work a celebrated O’Connell sends. He is able to reach his potential because of Walter, and O’Connell would do the same for Walter—if he can. But at some point, Walter has to want more for himself for his own sake.

[[SPOILER——start]]

True to itself, the film interrupts easy resolutions at two points. Cheryl’s messy relationship with Phil, so Walter is left believing her lost to him. He does not find the print in time and is fired. So the end journey belongs to his character alone. The self-discovery is for him alone, the others provide the catalyst in what is otherwise a progression of daring feats. Those interruptions are of primary success to the film.

I also liked how Walter’s fatherlessness contributes more to a staid life than a daring, risk-taking one filled with mohawks and skateboard culture—thus critiquing popular notions via inversion.

[[SPOILER——finish]]

walter mitty stillerWalter is the real puzzle of the film, the real mystery to be uncovered. His mother Edna (the inimitable Shirley MacLaine) has musical talent and his sister Odessa is trying out for Rizzo (a “tough and tender” “real” character) in an off-Broadway production of Grease, so what happened to the staid figure of Walter? There is a marvelous consistency to the character Walter that allows a fuller realization without mistaking a resolution that comes out of no where. His was a life interrupted. So while I may question his cell coverage, his capabilities aren’t. His imagination that longs to be a part of his reality finds a way to do so and in ways he couldn’t have anticipated near the beginning of the film.

The conversation on beauty. and the one about the obfuscation of those who facilitate and create beauty. And about enjoying beauty as we find it in a quiet and intimate way, unmediated and undocumented by nothing more than the moment—read the criticism of technology here and our inability to live in a moment which leaves us with half-lived lives. I thought immediately of going to concerts where few are enjoying it whilst recording it via a less superior medium.

There is a love for old(er) things; a touch of nostalgia that isn’t so much about the sentimental, but about knowing what things meant (a bit of anti-hipster jab there, which may explain the beard weirdness, too?). There is something to a knowing that differs from current technological dependence; something less ephemeral that feeds into an understanding of identity and humanity within the film. Not that the film is anti-tech—by whatever means connections can be made, but there is certainly a requirement to not leave them to such distances (e.g. the meetings and means of communication between Walter and others). In a world increasingly overtaken by on-line media and meeting (as with Life), the message of the film, of not getting lost in an unlived life, is relevant to a broad audience.

walter mitty pennOther things to look forward to in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty:

Ben Stiller fan or no, he is marvelous in the role. Penn is enigmatic and warm. I mentioned Wiig’s performance, and MacLaine just makes me happy. The quality of color (which is crucial to the film). The editing: The transitions are gorgeous. The incorporation of text, to say nothing of Walter himself, reminds us of Stranger than Fiction (2006) in a very good way. The humor is well-timed. And the sweetness is never cloying. The modest soundtrack is seriously wonderful—and so are the locations. [I really want to go to Iceland, and possibly live there.] The film was satisfying on so many levels. It is deceptively simple. I could say it is just a feel-good film, but there is more to it. I was pleasantly surprised by how unanticipatedly more it actually was (much like Walter himself?).

Natalya says the film is very much a Darnell film (our household name). And she’s right. She was so proud to know the “Major Tom” reference immediately, to know that the first allusion was inappropriate and that the second (Cheryl’s) was true. And she was floating along to David Bowie during the sequence of “A Space Oddity” at play (and when we got home in order to blast her stereo). Anxieties over whether the film was going to be an awkward display of the short story were gone in a raving review of scenes and lines, characterization and thematic developments.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was fantastic on the big screen, to get the scope of the settings, the color and sound. Nevertheless, we look forward to owning this one and enjoying this one on our modest screens at home.

——————————-

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013). Directed by Ben Stiller; screenplay by Steve Conrad; inspired by James Thurber’s short story; music by Theodore Shapiro; Cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh; editing by Greg Hayden; produced by Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., John Goldwyn, Stuart Cornfeld & Ben Stiller. Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Films, Red Hour Films, New Line Cinema; Distributed by 20th Century Fox {to which images used belong}. Starring: Ben Stiller (Walter Mitty), Kristen Wiig (Cheryl Melhoff), Shirley MacLaine (Edna Mitty), Adam Scott (Ted Hendricks), Kathryn Hahn (Odessa Mitty), Adrian Martinez (Hernando), and Sean Penn (Sean O’Connell).

Rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence. Running time 114 minutes.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. I love the trailers for this one and have been torn about taking the time to go see it on the big screen largely because of the mixed reviews it is getting (although if I’m determined to see something, I rarely let reviews stand in my way). Loved reading this review. I suspect that like your family there is much about this film that I would enjoy. I interpret from your spoilers, which I went ahead and read, that the film doesn’t have the ending that my ‘happy ending’ person prefers which also makes me want to wait for the blu-ray vs. spending theater money. We’ll see, I’m still very much torn. I think our next theater outing will be to see Saving Mr. Banks, but with an entire week off ahead of us we may feel the desire to catch more than one movie out.

  2. L says:

    oh, but it does have a happy ending…a sweet one.

    we are perusing theater and dollar options this week, too. Saving Mr. Banks sounds fun.

    1. Ah, sorry. I got the impression that it did not. That’s what I get for staying up too late and getting up too early. 🙂

      Might have to do a rethink now.

      I’m especially interested in seeing Kristin Wiig in this role. She looks, from the trailers, like she was a good choice.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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