Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is theoretically based upon the influential James Thurber short story of the same name originally published in the New Yorker magazine in 1939.  That original story was a comic story of a repressed and bored husband driving around his dull town, escaping from his life by descending into daydreams and fantasies based upon stock cliche genres.  He's a master surgeon, he's an assassin, he's a daring suicide pilot, all while his domineering wife in our reality sees only a dimwitted fool who must be punished by a lifetime of nagging and misery.  If you have ever watched any story about a character daydreaming into fantasies based vaguely upon reality - for example, just about half of "Calvin and Hobbes"' Sunday scripts or the Looney Tunes cartoon "From A to Z-Z-Z-Z" where a little boy in class becomes various heroes, including Douglas MacArthur - then you've seen something influenced by James Thurber.

One thing that's probably not so much influenced by James Thurber is this version of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", which isn't quite so much about quixotic escapism as much as... actually I have no idea.  I really do not understand what this movie was trying to be, what it was trying to say, or really much of anything here.  Ben Stiller directs and stars as the titular Walter Mitty, and I get the impression that Stiller did not actually understand the original New Yorker story, James Thurber, or even has ever particularly daydreamed in his entire life.  This version comes off not as a commentary on the nature of fiction but rather one part sportswear commercial and another part "Family Guy" random cutaway.  And I'm talking about latter season "Family Guy" here.

One of "Walter Mitty"'s most memorable fantasies, at least the one that received the most laughs from the audience, was a cutaway to Walter's fantasy of becoming a Benjamin Button creature, turning into a little old man while in the arms of his love interest in this movie, played by Kristin Wiig.  How ironic is that "Walter Mitty" decided to reference another bloated largely characterless movie based on an early 20th century short story whose actual point was completely ignored or misunderstood?*  Also, we're going to reference an Oscar-nominated movie from what, five years ago?  I was in high school when "Benjamin Button" came out, that's like three lifetimes ago.  This is really the caliber of comedy we're looking at here with "Walter Mitty" - 'remember that "Benjamin Button" movie?  Isn't it funny that Ben Stiller is a CG dwarf now?'  Really, if all you want is Ben Stiller acting like a loveable loser, occasionally wacky, in a non-offensive generically 'inspiring' movie that will in no way challenge your life or deepen your existence, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is for you.  And remember, the USA Network has yet another 24 hour "Law & Order: SVU" marathon today, as long as we're being safe and thinking inside the box, might as well watch those reruns for the millionth time.

The 21st century Walter Mitty is a lonely, horrifically boring human being working in Life magazine (remember when that was a thing?  Like ten years ago?), escaping occasionally escaping into his daydreams.  The fantasies this time aren't juxtapositions of real life mundanity and the adventure of fiction, but rather just comedy segments where Ben Stiller gets to act wacky.  His character isn't really abused by the world around him, he's basically just a really boring man, who amazingly, has never gone anywhere or done anything in his entire life.  In his universe, his fantasies are mostly accepted by his friends and fantasies, but used as a method of attack by the local bully, a dotcom investor played by Adam Scott, who has bought Life, and hopes to gut it, remove all the spirit of hardworking purity of print media, and do other things that one-dimensional pricks in terrible fake beards do in broad unsubtle movies**.  His primary goal in life to capture the heart of Kristin Wiig, a divorced new hire on this sinking ship, whom he cannot work up the courage to ask out because that's what charming losers do in broad unsubtle movies.

Eventually however, Walter's isolated and terrible existence is challenged when the final photograph for Life's final print issue is somehow lost.  This photograph was supplied by a daring ultra-cool photographer played by Sean Penn, a globetrotting badass who takes pictures of exploding volcanos while riding biplanes and uses only traditional analog cameras because, you know, cool people use old things.  Walter is forced to have a real adventure, fighting sharks, giving cakes to Afghan warlords, and riding skateboards in Iceland, all to find this last photograph, and to spruce up his E-Harmony profile.

Now, a much more clever movie would have left the audience guessing whether Walter's adventure is real or fantasy, but--

New Jersey's beaches at summer are the happiest places on Earth, a magical experience for the entire family to get sun, enjoy rides, and go to disgusting bars infested with idiots who think they will be the stars of the next season of "Jersey Shore".  At winter, all of that ends, the New Yorkers go north, the Philadelphia elderly leave the slot machines at Atlantic City to wait out the winter, and even residents our own state hide away.  Walking along the boardwalks in February is a surreal experience, you can feel the ghosts of thousands of laughing children and tired parents, but they're all gone.  Its entirely empty.  Gray rolling skies float inward over a freezing ocean.  Every arcade and ice cream store is hidden away by a shield of iron.  Humanity has left this world, leaving behind its toys, we are just the anthropologists investigating a civilization that has already died.

"Off Season" is a horror film that sets itself within this strange universe, only somehow deepened.  These boardwalks aren't just closed for the winter, they've been closed for decades.  Its never stated how or why, but at some point in this film's past, winter rolled in, and never left, leaving a playground forever to be empty.  The four central characters live in a Jersey Shore sandbar town that either thanks to a second Hurricane Sandy or some other more supernatural reason, has been emptied of its inhabitants.  They spend their time in a cheesy Doo-Wop motel, a garish teal construction with a plastic pit in its yard that once was a pool, and the broken pieces of deck chairs and umbrellas scattered along the floor.  The four characters walk along a collapsed boardwalk, next to a shattered roller coaster, without even a comment of the past that has been lost.

Just as unexplained as the decimation of this world is the origins and names of these characters.  All four have an unusual power.  The mousy neurotic young woman sets fires, the childish Black man in an oversized coat and shabby hat can turn invisible, the serious-minded policeman entirely deluded by his own innocence can never miss a shot, and the last of the four, an older gentleman in a fine suit, seems to have no powers, except for a mastery of fraud.  All four are predators, stepping into the more inhabited regions to murder faceless people.  It seems as though all four are grotesque creatures beyond all sympathy and meaning, but then we discover these people do not exist at all, and are merely projections of the past.  And then, the movie continues to grow stranger, as the characters turn against each other, and then, even what little grounding we've had breaks away, as the final reveal--

--Oh sorry, I started daydreaming a more interesting movie for a second.  Back to our regularly scheduled programming.

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is not a terribly funny movie.  It isn't very romantic.  And its one of the least inspiring films I've ever come across, despite its only purpose seeing to be a rather mundane and commercial "GO OUT AND HAVE FUN".  This movie completely misunderstands the point of the David Bowie song "Major Tom" as 'go out and be a hero', somewhat forgetting the last verse where Major Tom dies in outer space - and somewhat missing the metaphor for drug use.  But forget those details, be all you can be.  Which sure, yeah, if you've had a steady job for sixteen years, are about to lose that job anyway, and have lived alone for over a decade, I'm sure you can go out and run to Afghanistan for an adventure.  I, however, have to to work at fucking Burlington Coat Factory tonight.  And while I'm doing it, I'll pretending I'm Captain Jordan Paramount, Hero of Humanity, defeating the monstrous alien scourge who have assaulted mankind's energy reserves, while in reality, I'll be picking up shirts and debating whether or not I actually care if its on the right shelf or not.  But don't worry, Ben Stiller, somebody paid you ninety million dollars to have fun.

This fun, is, of course, draped in the clothing of several dozen product placement details.  Walter Mitty's entire character journey is very bluntly explained over the course of several conversations with an E-Harmony representative.  Less positively represented is Papa Johns which comes across a symbol of the imprisonment of Walter Mitty's spirit.  One major conversation has to take place over the shadow of a MetLife logo, and I'd like to imagine that MetLife might have some kind of symbolic meaning to the scene, but all I can see in my mind is Ben Stiller singing the back of a very large check from Wall Street.  And I don't even know what exactly the point of this movie's strange fetishism with Life magazine is, a publication that hasn't existed in over a decade, and hasn't been culturally relevant since the 1960s.

On a more positive note, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is far from a mean-spirited film.  I'm basically the one Grinch here ruining everybody else's Christmas by being bitter and ugly.  The other members of the audience actively applauded at the end, a reaction I haven't seen for a non-midnight release since "The Departed".  People liked Ben Stiller's lovable loser, and they wanted him to have his adventure and be happy.  That the adventure was basically meaningless and just fluff meant nothing to them.  They were happy, they were having their fantasy.   I, however, was merely taking in the above-average directing, enjoying the truly fantastic cinematography.  And seriously, if "Walter Mitty" inspired you go to out and go to Iceland, go to Iceland.  Fight a shark, that's fine.  Nobody is stopping you.  But some of us have to live with just daydreams, and I don't really think that's a terrible crime.

But if you're looking for a cinematic adventure, something that will really shake you out of your safe world, "Walter Mitty" could not be less adventurous, less controversial, and more safe.

* The F. Scott Fitzgerald "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is about a dozen pages long, and is purely a comedy, and actually extremely funny.  That story is entirely a parody of the cycle of life itself, where Benjamin Button constantly acts his physical age, no matter what his actual age.  The Baby/Old Man Benjamin yells at his father like a cranky and entitled old man, and Elderly/Pre-School Age Benjamin hides from the other boys in his kindergarten class because they're bigger than him, this only a decade after he tried to lie about his age to fight in World War I.  Fincher's movie is extremely competently made, he's a great director, but it has an amazing coldness and denseness to it.  Brad Pitt's Benjamin Button has no personality, he is impossible to describe, there are no traits at all to this character.

** By the way, Ben Stiller, you will have to work ten times as hard to make me hate Adam Scott.  I don't care how awful his beard is, he's still Henry from "Party Down".

1 comment:

  1. i only saw walter mitty from the 40's, and that shit was seriously funny. anywayzz dude, i saw the trailer for this one, and it just looked like some wimpi-azz remake. i dont like my bread all soggy, no thank you~~. i guess i cant judge something i havent seen, but 10 dollars and 2 hours, i duno dude you coulda payed for some wayy better entertainment. here are some better ways to spend your ten dollars next time, ahem;
    1.go on a sweet binge, a porny magazine
    3.ride a ferris wheel?
    4. have some peekaboo fun!