Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Cinema File #298: "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty" Review

Ben Stiller is one of those actors who wears his investment on his sleeve. More so than most, it is incredibly easy to tell when he is actually interested in a project he's appearing in, and when he's just phoning it in. When he cares about what he's doing, as with his eponymous television series or more serious movies like Permanent Midnight or Flirting With Disaster, the result is often great if not brilliant, and when he doesn't, we get an infinite number of terrible Night at the Museum and Focker sequels. There might as well be two Ben Stillers, and for the sake of convenience, let's call them Artist Stiller and Paycheck Stiller. Naturally, until now Artist Stiller has shown up for all the movies he has personally directed, from the criminally underrated Cable Guy to the still insanely clever Tropic Thunder. Sadly, his latest directorial effort seems to have broken this cycle, or at the very least, he didn't seem to care enough about The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.

A remake of the Danny Kaye film inspired by the same James Thurber penned short story, the movie follows its titular mopey dreamer as he stumbles into an epic journey to find himself and bring meaning to his empty, fantasy fueled life. The draw of the film, at least as far as the advertising is concerned, is two fold, promising a host of wacky fantasy set pieces interspersed between a story of schmaltzy feel good self-discovery. Mitty is the classic loser, self conscious and love lorn, pining for the girl just a few feet away but too intimidated by her and the rest of the world, and too distracted by his weird mental disorder that causes him to freeze in place and imagine bizarre adventures, no doubt brought about by some undiagnosed brain tumor. Of course, that would have been a darkly comic twist worthy of the old Ben Stiller, or rather, the Ben Stiller of a few years ago who brought us a white dude pretending to be a black dude pretending to be another dude. That Stiller is regrettably nowhere to be seen here.

There are brief glimpses of Artist Stiller's skill with absurd comedy, most notably in a fantasy sequence parodying Benjamin Button, but every time the movie feels like its going to embrace the silly potential of Mitty's roaming imagination, it instead pulls back and mires itself in a sort of mushy old timey sentimentality that might have worked if it had been more consistent, or more importantly if it had been more substantive than a tone buttressed by sweeping music and pretty visuals. The shallowness is the biggest problem with this movie. It wants to say more than it does about life, the universe, and everything, and when its reach exceeds its grasp, it settles upon the easiest and laziest possible solution to the problem of Mitty's sheltered life. You're lonely and introverted? Go see the world, have some adventures overseas (stopping off at a Papa Johns along the way for some quick product placement). Just don't ask what it all means, because all you'll get is tired pablum.

It wouldn't be so insulting if the unraveling leading up to this grand revelation of self-help bullshit weren't so obviously mapped out from the beginning. The macguffin that propels Mitty is a lost photo negative and the resulting search for its enigmatic world hopping creator makes up the majority of the second half, but if you can't guess where the little slip of film has always been within five seconds of learning that it exists, well, then you might just be simple minded enough to get something deep and profound out of the film. Not that it matters, and it doesn't matter in that particularly egregious way in which you know from the start that its never going to matter, because its all about the journey and not the destination and blah blah blah please kill me. Oh, and at the risk of spoiling the ending, I must say that the end reveal of just why Walter Mitty had to travel so far, or rather, why he had to go so far to learn he never had to go so far, isn't made any less frustrating when a lamp shade is hung on how pointless it all was.

Mitty's quest for inadvertent spiritual fulfillment takes him across many lands and many often beautiful locales, enough that it might have made for a great nature film had they spent any time actually letting any of this footage breathe free if its empty soulless "Just Do It' message. Its shot very well and many of the people involved, including its director and star, seem to have cared a great deal about bringing this story to life with respect and reverence, but alas, its not enough, and all that love was expressed in vain. This is the first time I honestly can't tell whether I'm looking at Artist Stiller or Paycheck Stiller, as if the two sides of his creative life are fighting for dominance. Or maybe this is just the first time he's actually invested so much into something so misguided, and the cognitive dissonance is confusing. Then again, his next movie is yet another night in a fucking museum, so I guess we know who won at least. For now anyway.
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