Monday, January 27, 2014

A review by Scott R. Garceau originally published on January 22, 2014; The Philippine Star.

There are some great visuals in Ben Stiller’s new movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, like helicopter rides over Icelandic volcanoes and shots of the actor/director careening down a mountain road on a skateboard. But like the magazine which is the background subject of the movie, the movie is mostly a series of visuals meant to impart a sense of human wonder: it’s Life of Pi with more laughs, less depth.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is based on a James Thurber short story from 1939, so naturally it needed a lot of padding (and major updating) to stretch it to a 90-minute movie. A lot of stretching, considering the movie itself is very slight: the title character (played by Stiller) checks negatives at Life magazine during its final days; when he can’t locate a crucial photo taken by adventurous photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), he decides to locate the negative by tracking down the rock star lensman. Meanwhile, he’s smitten with new Life employee Sheryl (Kristen Wiig) but is too shy to connect with her. Instead, he daydreams (“zones out”), imagining himself in heroic situations. Anyway, if you’ve seen the trailer, you already know the story.

A similar situation — stretching a short story to a full-length movie — occurred with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which was padded out to epic schmaltz levels by David Fincher and a bunch of CGI people. Curiously, that movie is referenced in Stiller’s Walter Mitty: in one of the movie’s funnier scenes, Mitty imagines himself as a wrinkled little old man being nestled in the lap of Wiig. She calls him “Baby,” then corrects herself: “I mean like ‘Sweetie,’ not like, ‘weird old man baby.’”

The movie could have used more of that Tropic Thunder-type movie referencing. As it is, it’s a lushly photographed Ben Stiller vanity project that reminds us that, yes, you only live once and you have to stop dreaming and get out there and do stuff.

It’s a good message, one that’s become an annoying catchall acronym among netizens (YOLO). Yet it’s not a particularly new concept, and even the idea behind Thurber’s story has become so commonplace that daydreamers are described as “Mittyesque” (at least they used to be, when the story was still current in pop culture).

So how does Stiller make it relevant to today? He sticks in a lot of modern references (Cinnabon and Papa John’s are shown in running product placement gags); and he focuses on the way social media has become a way for people to announce that they exist. Walter has an eHarmony account, an actual dating site where people “wink” at one another to hook up. He says he’s never done anything “noteworthy,” but this veneer seems to shed pretty easily and in no time he’s jumping onto helicopters and skateboarding down Icelandic highways.

All these things look cool, and the cinematography in Secret Life of Walter Mitty is gorgeous. But the plot itself is as threadbare as a Pauly Shore movie. Mitty must locate O’Connell because new transition team leader Adam Scott (the douche-y guy with the beard) needs a certain missing negative 25 as the cover shot for Life magazine’s final issue. Walter and Sheryl piece together clues from the surrounding negatives and Mitty finds himself in Greenland, then Iceland, then the lower Himalayas searching for the elusive zen-like photographer.

We know he’s zen-like because he doesn’t use digital cameras and sometimes he doesn’t even take the money shot once he has it in his sights: he just lets the image be, because “beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”

Sean Penn is really good and soulful here in what amounts to a cameo. When he’s on camera, you can believe all the hoo-hah about living in the moment, respecting the beauty of the world, and not posting everything for the world to see every single second. But he’s asked to do a lot of heavy metaphysical lifting for the movie, since the script is basically a series of vignettes that don’t really bother to strive for deeper meaning. Another seasoned actor, Shirley MacLaine, brings some much-needed life experience to her small role as Mitty’s mother. Patton Oswalt turns up, too, as the technical assistant guy from eHarmony. These people bring a semblance of life wisdom to the movie, even if there isn’t much evidence of it in the script.

Stiller himself acts and directs with assurance (well, he acts like his usual awkward, easily exasperated character), but it’s worth noting that this project was in production limbo for over a decade. At first Steven Spielberg was involved; then Ron Howard; then Jim Carrey was envisioned as Mitty. Finally Stiller was cast, and since no director signed on, he apparently stuck up his hand and said “I’ll do it.” This gave Stiller a chance to inject his own take on the very short story: there’s a peculiar fixation on the legacy of Life magazine and its motto (perhaps this was in Steve Conrad’s original script). And there’s some obscure stuff about a ‘70s rubber toy called Stretch Armstrong that might seem as unfamiliar to young audiences as James Thurber and, well, Life magazine, which folded in 2007.

There’s good use of the David Bowie song Space Oddity meant to suggest Walter’s soaring spirit. When mean boss Adam Scott catches Walt zoning out and dubs him “Major Tom,” after the character in the song, Wiig confusingly tells Walt that Major Tom wasn’t a space shot, he was a brave and bold explorer of the unknown. But we all know from Bowie’s later song, Ashes to Ashes, that “Major Tom’s a junkie.” So who you gonna believe?

There is a local angle to this movie, in that Twentieth Century Fox reportedly hired filmmaker Casey Neistat to make a promotional video based on the theme of “live your dreams.” According to magazine, Neistat instead offered to spend the budget on disaster relief for the Philippines in the wake of typhoon Yolanda. Fox agreed and gave him $25,000; you can see a six-minute video of his visit on YouTube. So maybe, in a real way, that offers a more effective message about embracing life’s moments than Stiller’s movie does.

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