Ben Stiller Saves a LIFE

How do you feel about FORREST GUMP? Is it a nauseating indulgence of nostalgia and fortune-cookie wisdom, with a plot not so much driven as it is stumbled over by a blank and passive character? Or is it a clever and satirical look at American culture, shown by a warm and gentle guide, armed with a message of heart and happiness?

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is going to divide viewers in much the same way FORREST GUMP has. I saw GUMP when I was about 13, and fell for its charms hook, line and sinker. As a teenager, I wasn’t yet weathered enough to find it’s message trite, or its cultural touchstones cliched. As an adult, I have kept an affection for the movie, but have often wondered what I would make of it had I seen it through my now old and cynical eyes. Based on MITTY, I might have been less welcoming.

MITTY invites comparison with GUMP not so much because of a similarity in plot, or even character. Rather, it’s because both movies dwell in a folksy, chicken-soup-for-the-soul outlook, through an inoffensive but undemanding central character. But where GUMP’s defenders will (I think rightly) lay claim to some social satire (what does it say about America and capitalism when the unintelligent can accidentally conquer it so easily?) as well as ultimate sincerity, MITTY is left to stagnate in a bog of product placement and thought-for-the-day philosophy.

Walter Mitty works in “negative assets” for LIFE magazine. He’s a very polite, but very boring man who has chosen a life of steady income over risk and adventure. We know this because he tells his E-Harmony Customer Service Operative in one of the movie’s more shameless shills. As LIFE comes under pressure to cut costs and convert into a low-overhead online entity, Mitty is entrusted with a negative cell from Sean Penn’s marauding and mysterious photographer – intended as the cover. When it goes missing, Mitty decides – with encouragement from Kristen Wiig’s co-worker and token love interest – to hunt down the elusive artist and recover the cell.

There is some pleasure to be had watching the amenable screen presence of Stiller as he traverses seas and volcanoes in search of his quarry. If you can ignore the occasions in which he pauses to try and sell you some pizza, you can appreciate the breath-taking scenery of places like the Icelandic volcanoes and relax with the comforting and inoffensive score. The problem is, it’s not quite enough. Mitty is not a very interesting travel companion, and the people he encounters seem TOO interesting – shuffled onto the stage to demonstrate their one idiosyncratic tick before being disposed of.

Tonally, it’s all over the place. Adam Scott is delightful as the smarmy downsizer with an entourage of morons and improbable beard, but he’s also in the wrong movie. By wheeling out a two dimensional cartoon character in a quasi-villainous role, the tethers which hold Mitty back don’t seem very strong, and so any character progress feels hollow. Penn’s character is no more inventive. If Scott is that school-bully arsehole from every movie you have ever seen, Penn is the wise and introverted mentor from the same kit. Kristen Wiig is among the most natural and likable screen presences working today, but she doesn’t have much to do beyond a bit of gentle affirmation, and a starring role in the dream sequences. And while I believe that Kristen Wiig can charm any man, there’s not much evidence as to why Mitty is so locked on to her character.

We are asked to invest in a man finally learning to leap before he looks in his life (and in one case, out of a helicopter) but having been bludgeoned by a multitude of sub-SCRUBS comedy cut aways (like JD, Mitty “zones out” in a series of sequences which feel designed to allow Stiller to insert some unnecessary and jarring comedy sketches) it all feels rather weightless. Which is a shame because there is the beginnings of something interesting here. I’ve not read the source material, but within the movie, we come to learn that Walter once had a mohawk. He was a skate boarder. He was an entirely different person. I would have liked to have seen more of a study on how a man might evolve into a shell of safety-first. Perhaps it would have been more moving and exciting when Mitty finally throws off the shackles of his own fears if we’d known more about how they had been fixed in the first place.

I get the impression that WALTER MITTY is designed to be seen as a beautiful modern fairytale, armed with a message which demands you follow your dreams, take a risk, and find out who you really are. I think there is an audience who will see it as just that. If you can take the film on its word, then there is every chance the movie will work for you.

But I never truly believed it.

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Posted by Matt