In the wake of 9/11, bitter cynicism kind of went out the window in Hollywood. Snark and irony were too harsh for people and, as a result, we had a lot of sincerity in the movies. At least for a little while. It’s been over a decade, and the pendulum has swung back, and that’s fine. I like my “Batman” with a little dark edge, and the last economic meltdown provided us with enough reasons to be angry at the financial system to justify ten versions of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” That said, not every movie has to be cynical. They don’t all have to be biting and tough. Case in point, this week’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” a movie that wears its heart on it’s gorgeously photographed sleeve, and a film that speaks to true love, honesty, and caring like few I’ve ever seen.
“Walter Mitty” is based on a 1939 short story by celebrated writer James Thurber, who wrote of an ordinary man who disappears into extraordinary daydreams. In adapting the story, director and star Ben Stiller sets the story at the moment when the iconic Life Magazine finally stopped publishing a regular monthly magazine and went to an online-only presence. Walter, played by Stiller, is the manager of the publication’s archive of photographic negatives. When famed photographer Sean O’Connell sends in the negative for the final cover, Walter’s life is turned upside down. Not only has the magazine hired an obnoxious transition manager who is lining up the layoffs, but the all important shot is missing. Suddenly Walter, who has a real problem with “zoning out,” as his mother and sister call it, is faced with a choice - curl up and let the world pass him by like normal, or go on an actual adventure that will change his life forever. The result is sweet, very funny, beautiful, and one of the most enjoyable journeys I’ve been on in a long time.
It’s no secret that the critics have not been kind to “Walter Mitty.” When the trailer was released a few months ago, I thought, “wow, there’s no way that movie can be as good as the preview makes it look.” Then, after harsh early reviews started coming out, I thought, “well, I guess I was right.” I actually was sort of right. The “Mitty” trailer is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Up there with “Forrest Gump,” and “Gatsby,” the movie isn’t quite as good as the preview. But that’s nitpicking in this case, because the majority of critics are flat wrong about “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” One of the major criticisms I’ve read is that Ben Stiller somehow sold out and made his movie one long corporate commercial jam packed with product placement and artistic concessions to corporate greed. I’ll admit, on first glance, the online dating company E-Harmony, the pizza restaurant Pappa Johns, and Cinnabon, among others, are fairly blatantly touted. But if you watch the entire movie and actually pay attention to the plot, it becomes fairly obvious that these corporations are stand-ins for everything that’s cold and static about life. Stiller is mocking them - gently, as everything about this film is gentle, but still, this is not a sell-out movie. Walter, who is in love with a co-worker named Cheryl, attempts to get her attention via an online dating service. At one point, Todd, the E-Harmony rep, even goes so far as to ask Walter why he’s bothering with online dating when he could just go up and actually talk to the girl of his dreams. That doesn’t smack of corporate sponsorship to me, but I think there are certain critics who want Ben Stiller to be witty and sharp so bad that they are willing to punish him for making a film that’s so sweet.
“Walter Mitty” isn’t sharp, but it is funny. Very funny, at times, and it makes use of the best subtleties of great comic actors like Stiller, Kristin Wiig, who plays Cheryl, and Adam Scott as Ted, the layoff manager, who is more than a bit of a tool.
This is certainly Stiller’s show, and he nails it, playing a version of his exasperated New Yorker character, though with the volume turned down and the introspection turned up. This is Stiller at 40-something, pulling a Clint Eastwood, who skewered nearly his entire film history with the brilliant “Unforgiven.” Here, the director of the Gen-X angst-fest “Reality Bites,” among many
others, has made sweet, honest film about the beauty of love, friendship, loyalty and hard work. Yes, there’s some satire, yes there’s some criticism of corporate greed, but it’s not the focus. It’s not the take home. Also noteworthy is Sean Penn in a fairly small, but very nice role as O’Connell, the elusive photographer.
“Walter Mitty” isn’t a “perfect” film in the sense that everything makes complete and perfect sense. There was a part of me that was complaining in the back of my mind about the ease and rapidity with which Walter embarks on his actual adventure, first to Greenland, and then beyond. But looking at the movie as a fable, as a tale where the themes trump the details, I think “Mitty” comes closer to that “perfect” definition than any I’ve seen in a while. For me a perfect movie is one where all the parts work as a whole. Where no element feels redundant, unfinished, or ill-conceived. Perfect movies are rarely the ones that win Oscars, because they are rarely the big, important movie of the year.
But movies as varied as “The Three Amigos,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “The Princess Bride,” and even “Die Hard,” all fit into that category - at least for me. Will “Walter Mitty” be one of those on my “perfect” list? Only time will tell, but I can tell you without a doubt that it’s worth the price of your admission.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is rated PG for some adult themes and a few scenes of mild peril. I love seeing a movie that didn’t pander to get the all-important PG-13 rating.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.