Actor-director Ben Stiller’s re-telling of THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY benefits from wondrous digital effects and the ability to film in the world’s most hostile environments: Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan and New York City. Los Angeles Airport (LAX) also features in a set piece that relies heavily on the X. (I shall say no more.) The audience I saw it were keen to ‘go with’. Yet as it unspooled, you felt the desire to have a good time be drained by inspirational music. I had an immediate desire to cleanse myself with a viewing of THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE.
For those not familiar with James Thurber’s original short story, it is the tale of a fantasist who lives more in his head than outside of it. I haven’t seen the Danny Kaye picture but Stiller’s movie clearly has to compete with Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL (1985) in which an oppressive futuristic society forces its hero, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) inwards. Stiller’s film, written by Steven Conrad, ‘blows its wad’ early by having Walter (played by Stiller himself) leap through a window and rescue a dog before a building goes up in flames, returning the pet to its owner, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) who is the object of his desire. It is a slick sequence, but studiously unfunny.
Walter’s problem is that after his Dad died, he didn’t achieve his potential – whatever that is. Instead, he took a succession of jobs in fast food emporiums. His sister (Kathryn Hahn) does all the artistic stuff – at the start she is auditioning for the part of Rizzo in GREASE. Walter is concerned that the piano his father bought for his mother (Shirley Maclaine) won’t fit in her new apartment. She moves in with him, but significantly less is made of this than one expects. In the Danny Kaye movie, the central character was a mummy’s boy, says my well-thumbed copy of Halliwell’s Video & DVD Guide 2004.
Walter works at Life magazine in ‘negative assets’, a department that looks after pictures sent in by photo journalists. But Life is going digital. There are lay-offs in store and a transition man (Adam Scott) is there to oversee the last printed copy of the magazine. Photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) has sent Walter a picture that he describes as ‘the quintessence of life’ – number 25 – but it is missing from the roll. The transition man wants it or Walter will get fired. He needs to track down Sean – and fast.
In a film about a hero’s inner life, the fantasy sequences have to be integral to the drama, otherwise they are just decoration. Walter’s fantasy life actually stops him from interacting with people; he ‘zones out’. The transition guy throws a paper clip at him. It should mask a trauma. In reality, Walter would never be able to keep down a job. He couldn’t operate heavy machinery. He would miss his stop on the subway. In this movie, his dreams express, as you’d expect, his desire to be a hero, to be more active than he actually is. However, we don’t see what’s holding him back.
Walter is actually good at his job and this goes against the premise of the movie. You expect Walter to utter a line like: ‘when I look at Sean’s photographs, I don’t need to dream.’ This would make the film a bromance. But Stiller never grounds the character psychologically.
The film becomes even more incomprehensible when Walter, when meeting Cheryl’s teenage son for the first time, shows off his skateboarding skills. We keep expecting the cutaway to reveal his ineptitude but it doesn’t appear. In fact, when Walter sets off in search of Sean, I kept expecting him to wake up. He goes on a dodgy plane ride into a storm to find a boat Sean had travelled on – surely it is a dream. No, it really isn’t.
Equally improbable is Walter’s ability to get a mobile signal in the most remote locations without the aid of a satellite phone. He converses with the e-Harmony help desk (Patton Oswalt) who is keen for him to build a profile and does not believe Walter when he describes that he was dropped from a plane into the sea and faced off sharks. (You wonder if he’ll describe himself as a ‘barrel rider’ – wait, that’s a line from THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG.) The expectation that the film will snap out of it at any moment detracts from your emotional involvement. You keep thinking: this isn’t Walter but his fantasy self.
Stiller’s film is fundamentally misconceived, never more so than when Walter and the transition guy fight over a Stretch Armstrong doll. That he takes it with him on his trip underlines the dream-like quality of the narrative.
So forget all the globe trotting – Walter on a two week mental vacation, with a brief flight back to re-group before another call to action (what the hey?) He might drink beer from a glass boot, escape volcanic ash, trade Stretch Armstrong for a skateboard – we don’t care. We care when he drops off the skateboard for Cheryl’s son and later watches a video clip sent by phone, but this affecting sequence is the exception.
What’s strange is that Walter never imagines himself being more successful at his job or having enough money to care for his mother; he has the dreams of a little kid. Stiller parodied FORREST GUMP in TROPIC THUNDER with the character Simple Jack. Watching WALTER MITTY I felt Stiller was making SIMPLE JACK for real. The comic acting from Hahn and Scott leavens some of the tedium. Maclaine is presented as an American treasure and not for her own ‘past life’ imaginings.
Reviewed at Odeon Covent Garden, 18:30 screening, Monday 9 December 2013 – with thanks to HEAT magazine and www.showfilmfirst.com.