Ben Stiller, the director, continues to prove himself as a true auteur with mainstream comedic appeal. A product of the 1990s comedy scene, he cemented himself with the reverent, audaciously under seen and hilariously subversive The Ben Stiller Show. His early directorial works Reality Bites and The Cable Guy affirmed his streak for darkly comic yet effective turns (even into the bizarrely satirical Zoolander and broad hit Tropic Thunder). With The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, he takes on the classic literary lost character beautifully yet coldly with some breathtaking visuals, creating a vivid sense of wonder and imagination.
Based loosely on the 1939 James Thurber short story, Stiller stars as the meek Walter who works for Life magazine and is charged with processing the publication's very last cover photo from famed travel photographer (and Walter's mentor) Sean O'Connell (an even more grizzled than usual Sean Penn). The film's journey follows Walter as he searches for the photographer when his work becomes lost. Stiller doesn't quite pull off the perfunctory plot as a device for the stylistically opulent global adventures that follow. There's even brief dalliance where the film becomes a bit of a mystery, detective case as Walter looks for O'Connell's whereabouts.
The film's narrative, scripted by Steve Conrad, and gorgeous visuals from cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, are structured around Walter's vividly fantastical daydreams. As the story develops and he becomes more self-aware, confident, and well-travelled
, these asides fade. However, it's difficult to discern between fantasy and what becomes his actual larger than life adventures. Early on, Stiller cements Walter's drab, boring, dreary real world contrasted with his established, elaborate dreams yet both give way to some even more wondrous scenes of globetrotting that exist within the film's acutal story.
Stiller's integration of real-life brands and product placement within the film mirror contemporary themes, subtly yet loudly addressing new media replacing old. He plays with how brands played and play roles in our everyday lives and consciousness in between travelling the world. While off putting and in your face at time, this adds to the dazzling production design and value in a way that elevates the film's momentum going forward.
Stiller as the straight man is surrounded by a talented cast, playing off his detached, aloof personality. From Shirely MacLaine as his mother, Kathryn Hahn as his sister, Kristen Wiig as his love interest, Adam Scott as his strangely bearded, manically one-note evil boss, and Patton Oswalt as a recurring eHarmony operator and comedy relief, Stiller knows how to use his ensemble to build upon the material he's given. Comedians generally play restrained straight man to Stiller's Mitty. These characters move in and out of the story between his travels as the film works more as a series of detached, loosely related, fantastical vignettes or travel logs (a reoccurring motif within the film), anchored between scenes of dialogue in order to move the minimal plotting swiftly along.
Even with the large scale locations and scope, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty feels like a very small story with only a handful of characters. The film resembles a two-hour music video or SuperBowl ad with side stories in New York City, Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan, and the Himalayas. Stiller manages to construct the film so earnestly delving into sentimental themes of nostalgia intriguingly. It's a simplistic and beautifully idealistic picture full of wonder and imagination yet it still lacks a certain cohesive narrative element to bound its breathtaking visuals together. It leaves us cold while balancing an serviceable premise and likeable characters. It's an unusual film full of strange, whimsical elements and grandeur.
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