Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Film Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Ben Stiller movies always look so interesting to me.  And yet he never fails in disappointing.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is probably Stiller's best movie as he stars and directs this film about a daydreaming wallflower.  Walter is a lovable shy guy with a crush on the new girl Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) at Life Magazine.  While he pines away, he gets caught up in these elaborate fantasies of heroism or adventure to compensate for his flat, gray life.  As Life Magazine prepares to publish its final issue, he is given the final film role from world famous photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn).  But the most important negative is not on the reel.  Walter then takes it upon himself to break out of his shell and travel the world in search of Sean and the missing photo.

I have to say that the cinematography is gorgeous.  Director of Photography Stuart Dryburgh should get an Oscar nomination if not the award itself.  Stiller uses his images to their maximum effect.  The places that he travels, both in his mind and in real life, come to us in vivid powerful punches.  I could not take my eyes off of the visuals.  His use of color is fantastic and he knows what pallets to use to give impressions of temperature, emphasis, and emotional impact.  Watching Stiller skateboard down a barren Icelandic highway was lyrical and beautiful.

And the first half of the movie hums along really well.  You feel the build up of Walter trying to become something other than he is.  I enjoyed his over-the-top fantasies, as someone who also is a serial daydreamer.  It was nice to see someone else slip into a vivid HD world of the imagination.  As Walter begins to travel the world, you try to put together the clues with him to find Sean, like a big screen "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?"

But the main problem is the script.  There is WAY too much dialogue.  What I mean is that something happens and then later on the characters rehash what happened.  There is a running joke with an online support person (Patton Oswalt) who converses with Walter throughout the movie.  During these sessions, Walter brings Oswalt's character up to date with things we just witnessed.  It brings the movie to a screeching halt each time.

Also, about halfway through the film, Watler returns to New York from his search.  Now while this is another plot device that gets Walter to another piece of the puzzle, it felt like it took all the wind out of the narrative sails.  Could you imagine if halfway to Mordor, Frodo had the eagles take him back to the Shire for a weekend?  There is also a lot of narrative dead weight with a subplot with his mother (Shirley MacLaine) and his sister (Kathryn Hahn).

But the themes work well, especially the contrast between publishing Life and living life.  You root for Walter.  In an important scene, he has a daydream sequence where Cheryl begins to sing to him in a karaoke bar.  This effective blend of his imaginative side to the resolving of his courage was a very nice story element.

I think that Stiller's directing shows someone who has greatness in them.  He just needs to learn how to tell a leaner, cleaner story.  All of his movies (Tropic Thunder, Cable Guy, Reality Bites) are weighed down by clunky narratives.  It is a shame, because in each of these, most especially The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, you can tell that if they just let go of the anchors, the film would soar.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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