Silver Screen: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty ****
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has been in development for more than a decade, and it feels like it. For a time the remake of the 1947 Danny Kaye film, based on the classic short story by James Thurber, was intended as a vehicle for Jim Carrey, although it changed hands and spent several more years in development with Ben Stiller. (The New Yorker magazine, where the Thurber short story first appeared, wrote an excellent account of Stiller’s long struggle to get the movie made.)
That’s not to say that Walter Mitty’s distracting anachronisms are directly the result of its protracted gestation, yet at times the movie seems to have been willed into being past the point of expiration. The title character works at Life magazine, which hasn’t published a print edition since the year 2000. The entire plot hinges on the protagonist’s job being Manager of Negative Assets, a wry joke of a title for a job of processing photo negatives from actual film, a vocation that hasn’t existed in journalism for more than a decade. The film’s major cultural touchstone is the David Bowie song “Space Oddity,” released back in 1969. For a movie all about compelling its protagonist to live in the present moment, it sure seems mired in the past.
In Thurber’s brief story, Walter Mitty is a man who deals with his mundane life by escaping into a world of thrilling daydreams in which he’s a daring hero. The Ben Stiller film, like the 1947 adaptation, expands this by sending its protagonist on an unlikely adventure and turning him into a real-life hero. In this case Mitty (Stiller) loses the negative of a prize photo from Life’s most famous photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), intended to be the cover image for the final issue. This prompts the decidedly unworldly Walter to go on a globe-hopping search for the elusive O’Connell to track down the negative. His travels take him to Iceland, Greenland, and Afghanistan, into the frigid chop of the North Atlantic to the base of an erupting volcano. But of course Walter’s first true expedition is also another, more substantial inward journey.
Stiller, as a director, is swinging for the fences here. The film is a nakedly ambitious attempt at a masterpiece in the best possible way, and although it doesn’t quite achieve the level of classic cinema, it remains a flawed but still very good movie. Working with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, Stiller crafts some beautiful imagery, especially in the sweeping shots that capture the expansive natural vistas with crystalline clarity. So too is he adept at the smaller comic moments: a sweet exchange between Walter and his longtime coworker as they ride the elevator down after being fired, or a great background sight gag in which Walter shows off skateboard moves to his would-be girlfriend’s son. It’s these subtle touches that enliven the chaste romance between Walter and his love interest, played by the always-charming Kristen Wiig.
Ben Stiller the actor has become associated with broad box-office hits and commercial pabulum, thanks in large part to the success (financial, anyway) of the Night at the Museum and Meet the Parents franchises. That’s unfortunate, because he’s tremendous, both in oddball bit parts like Arrested Development’s not-so-closeted magician Tony Wonder and more dramatic fare (Greenberg, Permanent Midnight, The Zero Effect).
But Ben Stiller the director is a powerhouse with a perfect record— literally. He’s never made anything short of a fantastic movie. Pretend you’re too cool for Reality Bites now, but can you think of a single movie that better typifies what life was like circa 1994, as the tidal wave of irony and self-awareness washed over post-Reagan America? While you’re at it, pretend too that you appreciated The Cable Guy when it bombed in 1996 despite being, in retrospect, obviously exceptional and heralding a weirder, more cerebral Jim Carrey. Both Zoolander and Tropic Thunder are undeniable candidates for funniest movies of the last decade despite the former’s unfortunate and untimely post-September 11 release. Yet of all these movies, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the most audacious.
What a shame, then, that such genuine expression is marred by the ugly, blunt intrusion of product placement. A nice scene late in the movie between Stiller and Patton Oswalt is all but halted for a Cinnabon commercial, although this pales in comparison to the relentless shilling for Papa John’s. I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised if at some point Peyton Manning dropped back and threw a box of breadsticks twenty yards into Walter’s waiting arms.
Last year’s dud The Watch, which costarred Stiller, took the uncomfortable intertwining of art and commerce to a whole new level by making Costco the hub of an intergalactic invasion. The sad reality is the Papa John’s shilling is just more evidence of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’s painful birthing process; Stiller struggled for so long to get the movie made, one can only assume the disgusting pizza-joint tie-in was a grim necessity.
But the graceless product placement in such an earnest passion project feels far more insidious and irreverent. It’s like a fart in church— or, worse, like a Papa John’s commercial in church.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.