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Entries in Secret Life of Walter Mitty/The [2013] (1)

Thursday
Jan092014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

I Wish the Real World Would Just Stop Hasslin' Me

Ben Stiller's version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a tough film to recommend. Coming out of an early screening last month, I was utterly enchanted, won over by the director's inventive visuals (think a less nihilistic version of Inception) and Steve Conrad's scientifically calculated soul-hugger of a screenplay. Weeks later, I struggle to remember anything about the film that wasn't covered in its trailers--aside from warm feelings and a slight desire to see it again. To my mind, that places Walter Mitty firmly in the "comfort food" category of moviegoing experiences.

Stiller stars as Walter, the head photo archivist at Life magazine. As a sort of grown-up Ralphie Parker, he often zones out in mid-conversation and visits colorful fantasy worlds that contrast the stark, grayness of his everyday routine. Instead of a BB gun, all Walter wants is the attention of Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a new girl in the office. Too shy to actually talk to her, he frequently paints himself into elaborate mental canvases as a mountain-climbing adventurer, say, or a daring rescuer of puppies--people bold enough to actually make a first move. He even passive-aggressively tries to get her attention on the dating website eHarmony, with the help of a snarky phone operator, played in a most Patton Oswalt-y fashion by Patton Oswalt.

Complicating matters are two converging stormfronts of doom: Ted (Adam Scott) is the new transition manager sent in from the company that's just purchased (and decided to cancel) Life; he's an outrageous dick with a more outrageous beard, who makes Walter his pet whipping-boy project. With the last issue comes the responsibility of creating a great last-issue cover, which falls to Walter developing a photo by world-renowned shooter/recluse Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn). The trouble is, the masterpiece's negative has turned up missing in Walter's lab.

As you might imagine (or gather from the trailers), our mild-mannered hero sets out on an adventure to find the negative, and ends up finding himself. As his journey becomes more grand and preposterous, his grand and preposterous fantasies become less prevalent. Who needs a Matrix-style cartoon street brawl with one's boss, after all, when there are real-life mountains to scale and Icelandic fishing boats to jump into from a helicopter piloted by a broken-hearted alcoholic (the wonderful Ólafur Darri Ólafsson)?

Walter Mitty holds very few surprises, but it is an exceedingly earnest movie. One might even describe it as "corny"--the kind of safe, multi-million-dollar, white-guy-escapist-fantasy that Stiller's character in Reality Bites might have ended up producing (and that the Ethan Hawk character would rail against from atop his message-board empire). Still, it's nice to see so much effort put into a film with a lovely and positive message. Don't worry: I'm not going soft on you here. But the 2013 awards season has been particulary slanted towards human misery (hell, even the movie about making Mary Poppins had a raging-drunk-dad sub-plot), and I loved being reminded that things sometimes work out.

It's not all sunshine and roses, though. For all the "life is about staking your claim and finding your own original voice" chatter, there's a strong undercurrent of cynical product placement that infects key parts of the movie. I got into a minor debate with Matt Pais about this after the screening, in which he wrote off the gaudy eHarmony and Cinnabon sponsorships as no more intrusive than most in-movie marketing. But I vehemently disagreed (still do).

It would be one thing for Walter to use a made-up dating website similar to eHarmony. But the exceedingly cheerful phone operator takes on the role of personal love-concierge, calling him frequently to give advice and let him know how his profile's doing--a profile, which, by the way, is built using the most state-of-the-art personality algorithms, exclusive the eHarmony. Oswalt's character also pops up later at an airport Cinnabon, and talks Walter through his next big steps while also marveling at the rich, gooey goodness of the baked mall-treats, and the contented sugar coma they leave in their wake. It's enough to make people like me, who care about movies (and not the gross back-door deals that finance them), feel more than a little cheated for having paid to see something I would have fast-forwarded through at home.

Maybe that's why The Secret Life of Walter Mitty leaves me so conflicted. On one hand, it's a cozy, whimsical fairy tale that will play very well, I'm sure, on F/X in the coming years. On the other, it's such a self-conscious movie that I can't think of it as much else than a two-hour commercial for the on-line version of Life magazine. Stiller and Conrad did their job, though: five weeks ago, I might have put this on my "Best of 2013" list. Luckily, like Walter, I was sufficiently distracted by richer cinematic fantasies, and eventually came to with some much-needed perspective.