Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Oct 05, 2013 12:36 pm 
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Almost "Life"-like

Big studio Hollywood isn't good at maintaining the boundaries between reality and illusion -- whose starkness was the point of James Thurber's classic little short story. The Ben Stiller Secret Life of Walter Mitty distorts James Thurber's idea, as did the 1947 Danny Kaye version, only this time even more so. Stiller's Mitty starts out with the theme of the meek office worker who escapes into fantasies, but tarts it up, and then tosses it away. It also has another theme -- actually several. It's not only about an urban cipher. It's also about the death of print journalism, and about downsizing, even about the glories of film photography compared to digital. There is too much going on here. And at some point it begins to seem this isn't Walter Mitty's fantasy, but Ben Stiller's. Is it Walter, or Ben, reimagining himself as a bold outdoorsman, a mountain climber, and (on an Icelandic highway, no less) a heck of a skateboarder? Oh yes, and he gets the girl (Kristen Wiig). (Thurber's Walter Mitty was a henpecked husband; Danny Kaye had Mommie issues.) And saves the honor of Life Magazine -- whose print edition, miraculously, is just being shut down in 2013. And hobnobs with Sean Penn, in the person of a legendary, maverick photojournalist.

What happened to the fantasies? All this starts to be actually happening. Just like in a movie. Sounds like a Twentieth Century Fox release, and it is. And a Twentieth Century Fox fantasy. Bearing in mind, though, that Stiller has said he "came relatively late" to this project, maybe it's not his fantasy at all.

In any case, this Secret Life limps badly at first, focusing on nerdy Walter's attempt to meet a fellow worker at Life through an online dating service, then shifting, unable to make this theme click (though it keeps belaboring it even in the most unlikely places), to an economic drama: Life Magazine has been sold, and Walter comes face to face with the condescending, odiously bearded Transition Manager (Adam Scott), who, strangely, orders Walter to find the negative of a new shot by legendary photojournalist Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn). It's going to be the cover photo for Life's final issue.

At first the movie shows Walter having fantasies, more or less as in the original Thurber story. He's flying through the air, rescuing animals from a burning building, and so forth. But that doesn't go anywhere, so the writers just gradually drop it.

And with such incoherent writing in Steve Conrad’s screenplay, no wonder there's a disconnect: in the opening scene Walter's got an anonymous little office space. Later, he turns out to be down in a dark library, in charge of the magazine's photo negative file -- a pretty important job, by the way. Other images are on the sheet, but the one requested, no. 25, is missing. Using the ones they've got, this becomes a treasure hunt that somehow takes Walter to Greenland and then to Iceland and finally Afghanistan, in search of the photographer himself. It may not be altogether clear whether Walter has plunged full time into his fantasy world, or has just been inspired by the challenge of finding Life's final, "quintessential" cover image to seek out Sean O'Connell to the ends of the earth. The screenplay forgets Walter Mitty was a guy who (as in Thurber) had a boring life and lived in his fantasies and turns him into a guy whose adventures, now actually happening, are so good he starts to score big on the Web dating site. As often happens with big budget screenwriting, the original concept of the character is tossed out in the interest of lively action.

Finally this movie clicks on some level when it finds some nice locations, notably a surreal little dive bar in a place called Nuuk, Greenland where the men drink beer from giant boot-shaped glasses, and Walter meets a giant, seedy, drunken pilot you could never make up (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson). (This is where Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography, which hitherto looked bright, neutral and generic, finally begins to work.) Stiller now takes on a bronzed, rugged, ultra-healthy look. This is where he dives into the ocean from a helicopter flown by an Icelandic drunk, dodges sharks, and zips cross country on a longboard skateboard he trades from a couple of Icelandic boys for a stretchy doll. He's really doing this stuff. What happened to Walter Mitty? Nonetheless on a simple adventure story level the movie now begins to be fun.

Sean Penn's brief scene is nice. Sitting gnarly and leather-skinned in front of a mammoth telephoto lens, he zeros in on a snow leopard -- giving Walter a peek -- really -- but chooses not to click the shutter. Sometimes he likes to save the moment for himself, he says. A concept for the Instagram, social media generation to ponder.

And the man can act. Even a hokey little scene like this, he can make memorable. Shirley MacLaine (as Walter's mother) and Sean Penn both look like weathered freaks here, out of place in the studio's squeaky-clean version of the imagination. But it's not clear where Ben Stiller's directing begins and ends here. His iconic role was Zoolander, and his best serious acting part was in Greenberg. This Walter Mitty is so distorted he lacks the courage to show the character's neediness and inadequacy. This isn't fantasy. It's "self-realization." In 21st-century Hollywood, the illusions don't end with a jolt. They come true.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, 114 mins., was premiered as the Centerpiece film at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it was screened for this review. Scheduled for December release, Christmas Day in the US. (Critical response was poor: Metacritic 54%.)

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