10 December 2013

A Life Less Ordinary

Ben Stiller movies aren't normally a big draw for me, but when I saw the trailer for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, of which Stiller is both star and director, I was somewhat amused, if slightly bemused. I'm not sure I would have paid to go and see it, but when I got a ticket to a free preview screening of the film last night, I decided to give it a try.

I haven't read the James Thurber short story of the same name on which the film is very loosely based, but it hardly matters. Stiller plays the titular Mitty, a "negative asset manager" for Life magazine. Yes, negative in the photographic sense, which seems to suit his meticulous, introspective personality. As the film opens, we watch him make careful notes in his personal ledger, and try to "wink" at his co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) on eHarmony (who must have paid a ton for all the product placements). His finger hovers over the "wink" button for minutes, but when he eventually tries to click, his computer won't let him.

As he waits for his subway train to work, he calls eHarmony's customer support and chats to a friendly guy called Todd (Patton Oswalt), who tries to help him out, suggesting that Walter fill in some more details on his profile: "you must have been somewhere or done something interesting." But Walter really hasn't. He has led a quiet, sensible life interrupted only by his occasional vivid daydreams, in which his alter-ego — a funnier, smarter, stronger version of himself — saves the day, gets the girl and otherwise kicks butt. All is not well at Life, however, because the management consultants are in the house, headed by Ted (Adam Scott), the "transition manager." The transition in question means turning Life into an online-only publication and firing as many people as possible, with hilarious consequences. After witnessing a couple of our hapless hero's daydreams, Ted sets his firing sights on Walter, but the latter has been charged with an important task by one of the magazine's top freelance photographers, Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), making him indispensable. For now, at least.

Sean sent Walter a collection of negatives including the all-important number 25, which Sean thinks should appear on the front cover of Life's last ever print issue. It will give it just the right note of "quintessence." The only trouble is that number 25 is missing and because Sean travels across the globe, he is thus quite hard to track down. However, by looking at some of the surrounding negatives and securing the help of his new buddy Cheryl, Walter realises Sean has headed for Greenland, and jets off to find him. And funnily enough, the more crazy experiences he has, the less he finds himself day-dreaming. Soon, Walter is making even Todd jealous each time Todd calls to find out what he's up to (that's customer service!).

The chase begins as a hunt for the missing negative in order to save his job, but because this is a feel-good movie, Walter soon learns something more important: he needs to spend less time dreaming and more time living. And yes, that's very cheesy, but The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a corny film. I enjoyed it more than I was expecting to, and the scenes in Greenland and Iceland were both beautifully shot and much livelier than the rest of the film. The denouement went on too long (it starts winding down about 40 minutes from the end) and I think it would have helped if the film was either funnier or darker. As it was, there were plenty of chuckles, but no real ROFLs, and because the plot was so predictable, I found myself becoming less emotionally involved with the characters. Stiller was actually quite well cast (by himself?), playing a much straighter role than we're used to seeing him in, and of course Sean Penn did what he does as the elusive photographer. Oh, and Kathryn Hahn and Shirley MacLaine as Mitty's sister and mother are good fun too, if a little cookie-cutter kooky.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn't something you need to rush to see at the cinema when it's released — the small screen will do it justice — but if you're looking for something light-hearted, uplifting and more than a little quirky, you could definitely do worse than this film.

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