Friday, 12 February 2016

Movie Review: The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (2013)



Ben Stiller, as a presence in Hollywood, frankly mystifies me. For a person who seems to have as much of an axe to grind on the establishment as he does, he sure spends a lot of his time in patently weaker productions. Sure, it’s as an actor, but it does feel like the game is playing him at times. I mean, the Meet The Parents series took a very steep decline that I can only hope is at its end and the Night At The Museum films, while okay diversions for kids, had way too much L.A. sheen to really buy into why Stiller would sign on for them… aside from the pay packet, of course. Meanwhile, behind the camera, he’s made films like the epitome of clever filmmaking about dumb characters with Zoolander, the underrated comedic thriller The Cable Guy and let’s not forget his masterpiece as a satirical firebrand with Tropic Thunder. Something tells me that there was a bit of reality-influenced casting that went into his role in last year’s While We’re Young. Anyway, once again as prep for a newly-released film by the same director, time to take a look at his last release that falls under my purview. This is The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.

The plot: Walter (Ben Stiller), a photo processor for LIFE magazine, is unsatisfied with his own life and frequently daydreams about more fantastical situations that he could be in. However, when an important negative from established photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) goes missing, his life is about to get a lot more surreal as he goes on a trip around the world to try and track Sean down and recover the negative. Meanwhile, he has to deal with his unrequited love for co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) and the pressure placed on him by his new boss Ted (Adam Scott) to find the negative, which contains the cover for LIFE magazine’s final issue.

This is a far cry from what I’ve come to expect from Stiller in terms of how the film itself looks. The plot itself is rather expansive, not to mention ambitious if you’re not gonna rely on backlots, and it’s a good thing that the director’s usually restrained scope was widen immensely to give this film the space that it needed. DOP Stuart Dryburgh, especially in the location shots, brings some serious Lubezki-style grandeur to the production and Stiller’s approach to the integration of Walter’s daydreams into the film’s reality kinda works. The more cerebrally fantastical side of the story is extremely varied in terms of its execution. There are some decent ideas for fantasies used, and credit where it’s due in that the pretty shaky CGI actually works to the film’s advantage in highlighting how unreal those scenes are. However, it still feels like these fantasies weren’t used to their full potential, as they seem to just drop away from the film after a while. Sure, it fits with the concept of his life becoming more surreal on its own anyway, and it also helps prevent this from aping Sidekicks with its use of dream sequences, but it also makes the core idea of the film feel a bit thrown together as a result. So, yeah, this is a bit muddled in terms of its visuals.

Over the last year or so, I developed a certain… disdain for actor Adam Scott. Between his doormat role in Hot Tub Time Machine 2, the complete worm he played in Sleeping With Other People and his performance in Black Mass that I actively can’t even remember witnessing, he has never struck me as someone I should care to see. That opinion has only strengthened after seeing his completely twatbrick of a boss in this film. I grant him that he’s good at being hateable as this film’s antagonist, but that doesn’t mean that he is in any way enjoyable to watch on-screen for any length of time either. As a result, the best parts of the film are those that have nothing to do with him, and for reasons beyond just his exclusion. When the film is dedicating time to the actual mystery, which feels like the kind of storytelling that Sierra Entertainment made their name with (trade Stretch Armstrong for skateboard, beat the horndogs to the bicycle, etc.), it is at its most entertaining. More than anything else, it’s commendable that this high-profile a filmmaker would give this amount of weight to a story like this; proper adventures like this on film shouldn’t be this infrequent. Then, much like how the fantasies would occasionally intrude on the actual plot, the suburbs and Mr. Shitebeard come around to spoil the mood. Bah.

I mentioned how this looks a lot different than Stiller’s usual output. Well, this also feels quite different as well. Even during his pre-film days, he had an attitude for just setting fire to the entertainment industry. Be it TV, cinema, or even the fashion industry, the man gets unrelenting in how they get portrayed. Of course, in previous films like Tropic Thunder, Zoolander and even Reality Bites, his approach to escapism was always a lot more venom-tipped. Just take his tirade against how the Academy treats the mentally handicapped, a speech so vicious that some audiences couldn’t tell how sincere he was being with it. Here, while the general attitude is similar in how it regards escapism to be a hindrance more than anything else (the hypocrisy writes itself), it’s a lot more smoothed out than usual. Hell, even with how ambitious it can get visually, I’d probably call this Stiller’s most ‘Hollywood’ production yet.

This isn’t helped by the rather rudimentary and Oscarbait-y attempts at being ‘life affirming’. The use of LIFE magazine’s motto… God, it’s so bad that I can’t even bring myself to finish that sentence. It’s dangerously close to Christian film-levels of on-the-nose with its message. Yet another reason why the scenes set beyond the confines of the humdrum are the most engaging, as most of the more mundane scenes are set in the offices of LIFE magazine, where the motto is plastered all over the damn place. I’d be perfectly fine with the general conceit of the film of all the little things that make up one’s life, from the events to the people, if it weren’t being delivered in quite as milquetoast a fashion. Hell, Stiller’s brand of satire would have definitely helped here as a less earnest take on this concept would have definitely helped the main idea go down a bit easier. Then again, for as much as the search for MacGuffin #25 did feel like it was being taken a few wrong directions at points, the ending was surprisingly affecting. If nothing else, that dénouement actually managed to save a lot of the oversweetness that came before it and ended the film on a nice enough note. Bear in mind that how a film ultimately leaves the audience (namely, me) can and has affected its overall standing before, so keep that in mind as we get into our conclusion.

All in all, while undoubtedly a lot softer around the edges than his usual output, it still carries hints of his usual anti-escapism sensibilities. Beyond that, the film itself feels like a cross between Sidekicks and a less racy Leisure Suit Larry, which if nothing else makes me want to see Stiller secure the rights to that series because, if this is anything to go by, he would do a pretty good job adapting some of Sierra’s output to the big screen. It takes a bit to properly get into, and it doesn’t really represent the man at his best, but it’s a decent watch in its own right. It’s easy to understand why it is so polarizing with people, though. It ranks higher than Star Trek: Into Darkness, as this doesn’t have any classics-butchering to get in the way the film actually does right. Seriously, even with how receptive I am to re-doing Wrath Of Khan as they did, it could’ve been done a HELL of a lot better. However, in comparison to another Sean Penn film, this doesn’t quite measure up to Gangster Squad for just sheer entertainment value.

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