Sunday, 29 December 2013
Review: The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (UK Cert PG)
Now and then, amongst the sequels, reboots and safe bets that are released in the cinema, you get a film that, while not exactly re-inventing the wheel, tries to do something different, that is unlike every other box office blockbuster currently doing the rounds. Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of those films: it does away with cynicism and takes you on a fairy tale journey filled with eye-catching visuals and cheerful humour.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is pretty much non-descript. He has a job at Life Magazine and that’s about it. He’s nice enough, but hasn’t really done much with his life. Walter sees himself as the exact opposite; he daydreams about being an action hero, an adventurer, someone who never lives the same day twice. As much as Walter imagines this life, he has never had the chance to achieve all the things he dreams of. This changes when Walter loses the cover photo from Life Magazine’s renowned photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), journeying across the globe to track down Sean and recover the negative.
Ben Stiller has done an excellent job of playing oddballs and eccentrics on screen – Derek Zoolander, White Goodman, and Tom Cruise’s stalker stunt double, Tom Crooze – but occasionally he gets given a subtle role, socially awkward characters, and, when it comes to shy and uncomfortable, there are few actors in Hollywood on a par with Ben Stiller. Stiller’s Walter Mitty is a timid, softly spoken creature, out of place with the world (he is clueless when it comes to internet dating and records all of his expenses in a notebook). Another actor playing the role – and several were considered, such as Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey and Sacha Barron Cohen – could run the risk of making Walter too strange, audiences finding him hard to identify with, but Stiller gives a skilful performance; you want this man to find negative number twenty-five and turn his life around.
Kristen Wiig, as Mitty’s love interest, Cheryl, has been a one-note actress ever since 2011’s Bridesmaids, but she plays that note especially well. With Walter Mitty, Wiig is once again excruciatingly self-conscious, but she has a feistiness that every so often creeps to the surface. Cheryl may be an obvious narrative device to encourage Mitty to continue on his quest, but she is far from the bland girl in a “Boy Meets Girl” film, with plenty of tongue-tied conversations between Stiller and Wiig.
While Sean Penn only briefly shows up, it’s good to see him playing an understated role as Life Magazine’s celebrated photographer. Sean O’Connell exits to make it clear to the audience what The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’s message is, but at least Penn does this in a way that feels honest rather than phoney, not taking himself too seriously.
So much of Walter Mitty looks like the front cover for Life Magazine, whether it’s Manhattan’s streets, Iceland and Greenland’s landscapes, or the mountains of Afghanistan. The offices of Life Magazine are bland, every room looks the same. Once Walter escapes his job and ventures into the outside world, cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh gives us visuals that, at times, make you feel like you are watching a BBC documentary on the big screen.
The film’s soundtrack is also something special, with Swedish folk singer José González (of the Sony Bravia bouncing balls advert fame) and his band Junip providing several trademark minimalist songs that add to the spectacle of Walter Mitty’s visuals. While most films throw song-after-song at the screen so the studio has an excuse to release an album, Walter Mitty tries to be creative in its song choices, with a particular stand-out scene involving Ben Stiller skateboarding down one of Iceland’s dramatic mountain-lined roads; impressive enough, but with Junip’s 'Far Away' playing alongside it – a rising, whirring base making the track more and more intense – you find yourself watching the whole scene wide-eyed, taking it all in.
David Bowie’s 'Space Oddity' has been overused in both film and sitcoms, but Walter Mitty manages to use the song to ensure its hero carries on with his journey, braving whatever is about to come his way. In the film’s best daydream, Walter is terrified to get in a helicopter with its plastered pilot (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) and instead chooses to end his search. Out of the blue, Wiig appears, guitar in hand at the Icelandic pub, singing Bowie to him. Changing his mind, Walter makes a run for the helicopter, jumping in just as it is taking off, accompanied not just by Wiig’s vocals, but also by the original song. It’s a genuine, fist punching the air moment. Songs in films don’t have to be cynically chucked in, they can be used as both character development and to push the narrative forward, and Walter Mitty does a fantastic job of this with 'Space Oddity'.
What, for me, stops Walter Mitty from getting five out of five is one of the things that make the film stand out: the daydream sequences. There are some strong, chuckle to yourself moments – Walter rescuing Cheryl’s dog from an exploding building, or wooing her as an arctic explorer – and the previously mentioned 'Space Oddity' scene is brilliant to watch, but it all feels a little bit too much. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is loosely based on James Thurber’s short story, where Walter goes shopping with his wife and has a number of grand, heroic daydreams. In the first half of Ben Stiller’s film version, screenwriter Steve Conrad gives us several daydreams on a massive scale which, while fun to watch, do sometimes feel heavy-handed. Stiller could have got away with just a handful of daydream scenes early on and the film’s message would still come across loud and clear. One scene in particular, where Mitty and condescending manager Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) gain super powers and fight over a Stretch Armstrong, could have been cut altogether. Another problem with the overuse of daydreams is that, during the film’s second half, you wonder if Walter is going to wake up, because this has happened so many times before. Thankfully Walter no longer needs to daydream because his real life is exciting enough, but there are moments where you wonder if he is suddenly going to snap out of it and the last couple of minutes were all in his head.
This is a minor quibble. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty won’t completely change your life, but it does have a compelling message, that all of us are a bit like Walter in the sense that we live our routine lives; daydreaming rather than living. Stiller is smart enough to know that audiences can only handle so much heart on its sleeve honesty, which is why the film has plenty of gentle humour. You won’t be laughing so much that you struggle to breathe, that’s not what Stiller is after, the jokes in Walter Mitty come from the barmy situations Walter finds himself in, as well as his awkward conversations. The point of Walter Mitty is for its audience to walk out of the cinema with smiles on their faces, but also to be thinking about their own lives, and Stiller one-hundred-per-cent succeeds. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is another great film to round off 2013.
Rating: 4 out of 5