Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is an average Joe New Yorker, working for Time Magazine. His life is dull, bland and listless. He lacks the adventure and excitement that he secretly craves and frequently day dreams, putting himself in exhilarating and romantically fulfilling positions. As news is announced that Time Magazine is to close, Walter is sent a roll of film from hunky adventure photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) who asks Walter to make sure that a particular photograph of his is considered for the final cover. The problem is that Sean’s photo never arrived and inspired by a secret love for a new co-worker, Walter breaks free of the shackles of everyday tedium and sets out to track down the illusive photographer not letting oceans, mountains or implausibility stop him.

It’s no coincidence that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was released here in the UK on Boxing Day, being as it is the perfect film to uplift its target audience from their overly full, post Christmas slump. Like a bland Christmas turkey, it’s the sort of film that comes around once a year at the festive period and even though it isn’t as exciting as venison or lobster, you eat it because it’s the time of year that you’re meant to. There isn’t lots of nourishment and if you’re honest, it’s quite dry but you let it slide because there’s also cranberry sauce on your plate. But wait a minute, there is no cranberry sauce, there’s Ben Stiller and he’s shoving another fork full of turkey down your throat. Eat the turkey. Eat it.

For me this film is nothing more than filler. It’s bland food, it's Saturday night television. Although ambitious and full of pretty images, it doesn’t say anything. It’s nothing like as deep and meaningful as it thinks it is and pulls the wool over its audience eyes with cleverly placed music and beautiful vistas of countries rarely seen in movies. One of my major problems with this film is that the conclusion feels totally at odds with the previous two hours. Walter spends the film trying to change who he is in order to live a more meaningful life while also attracting a woman but the conclusion tells us that he was perfect all along. Perhaps this is the actual message that the film wants to leave us with but if so, then why is he truly so uplifted by everything that happens before. The message is muddled and the film wants to have its cake and eat it.

Another problem with the movie is that one of the side plots involves Walter trying to help his elderly mother move into a home. His mother, played by the terrific Shirley MacLaine is vibrant and full of life and doesn’t seem elderly at all. Why is he spending so much time and effort moving her when she is perfectly capable of looking after herself? On top of all the above, I also take major issue with the frequent product placement. This only adds to the feeling that you’re watching Saturday night television as the film occasionally pauses to try and sell you something. The entire movie is framed around a dating website and Time-Life takes centre stage. There’s also frequent mention of a pizza restaurant which even pops up surprisingly in Iceland where everyone is enjoying a delicious and reasonably priced pizza in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption. Several other companies such as airlines and fast food joints get their names, logos or even advertising slogans placed in prominent positions, all while we’re spiritually uplifted.

I'm torn about the film's fantasy element and think it can be taken two ways. The movie opens with several brief fantasy moments in which Walter daydreams acts of heroism, romance and humour but these stop when his adventures begin. This could be either because he no longer needs to dream up the excitement or because the whole adventurous episode is one long day dream. If it's the former then even taking into consideration the fantastical elements of the film, its implausibility makes it ridiculous. In this scenario Walter goes from a beige man in an office to a Himalayan climbing, volcano escaping super-chap just because, well because a woman he likes thinks adventurers are dishy. Personally I like to see it as the whole second half of the movie is a daydream. It makes a lot more sense that way.     

I’m conscious that I’ve been nothing but negative so far and this film deserves a few kind words said in its favour. Although the story and narrative is flimsy at best, it is lavishly and stylishly directed. The cinematography is beautiful and it’s nice to see previously unexplored countries in a major US film. The soundtrack, while a little obvious, fits well and sounds good. The acting is also fine. Stiller plays it quieter and straighter than usual and puts attention to subtle detail ahead of gurning. Kirsten Wiig is also reasonable as the love interest. She’s a talented comic actor but is given very little to do here and is capable of much more. Shirley McLaine excels in the small role of the eccentric mother but no one really grabs the film and stands out. This is very much a one man film.

Overall The Secret Life of Walter Mitty feels dull, emotionless and uninspiring. It’s the sort of film that you don’t want to think too hard about in case it unravels at your feet but if you let it wash over you, it fills two hours with pleasing images and an occasional titter. It fails to understand how humans emote and often feels as though it was written by a robot but is well shot and will put bums on seats with its middle of the road, ‘feel good’ story. 

GFR 6/10

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