SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, US, 2013, Colour. Starring Ben Stiller, Kristin Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn, Adam Scott. Directed by Ben Stiller. Rated PG (Mild themes, action violence, sexual references and coarse language). 112
Ben Stiller. Ben Stiller has been making an impact on cinema screens and on television screens for several decades. He can write. He can direct. And he can be a striking screen presence, sometimes hilarious, sometimes more serious, and in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, something of both.
In his early 30s, he chose to make, both directing and acting, the absurdly funny Zoolander. Zoolander was a supremely self-confident of award-winning nincompoop of a male model, coming from a disapproving mining family, vain, ignorant, but, finally, something of a movie hero. That was then, this is now. In his early 40s, he has decided to re-create James Thurber’s comic character, Walter Mitty. The short story by Thurber is readily available on the Internet, only two pages long, published in early 1939 – with a comic and musical version starring Danny Kaye in 1947.
Is a 1930s Walter Mitty relevant to the 21st century? In a period when men are supposed to be men (with more than a macho touch), is there room for a comic hero who is alarmingly introverted, satisfied on the surface with his 16 year basement but important job in framing and editing the photos for Life Magazine, unable to make real contact to find a girlfriend? And there is also his mother and sister, Shirley MacLaine enjoying herself as his mother, Kathryn Hahn as his eccentric sister.
A man is expected to be sure of his identity and go about using it and developing it. Although, come to think of it, there is a whole generation of introverted game-players, assuming all kinds of identities instead of their own – is there a Walter Mitty computer game?
At the opening, Walter is unable to send a ‘wink’ to an attractive girl at work. He phones the computer dating company and begins a series of conversations, often at the most inopportune times and unlikely places, with the editor of the site, finally meeting him when he makes one of those times opportune instead of inopportune (funny silhouette version of an airport search). And then he goes into ‘the zone’, those imaginary spaces and places which Thurber introduced in his short story and which filmmakers and writers have taken much, much further. Walter is a hero, he rescues dogs, his photo is on the cover of Life Magazine, and , then, he is stranded on the subway station having missed his train.
Matters get complicated at Life Magazine, an executive (Adam Scott) being sent in to close the print magazine and put it on-line. This executive is a monster of a person, ruthless in his self-satisfaction and in his downsizing the staff. Needless to say, he is not impressed by Walter Mitty at all (though Walter does get the better of him in fights in the elevator and skateboarding along New York streets, in his imagination, of course). Then there is Cheryl (Kristin Wiig), new at Life Magazine, with a young son and an ex-husband, who begins a touch compassionately for Walter eventually attracted to him.
And that is only the opening. The Mitty adventures really begin, in real life, when Walter flies to Greenland to try to make contact with Life’s staff photographer, an interesting cameo by Sean Penn. There are some funny sequences with a big, burley, inebriated, singing helicopter pilot who takes Walter out to the ship, dropping him in the sea for him to be picked up rather than landing on the small ship. No luck in Greenland, trying out in Iceland where there are lots of mod cons but an erupting volcano. So a few Mitty real-life adventures.
Just when we think that this is a climax, Walter’s mother tells him that she has met the photographer and he has gone to Afghanistan to film snow leopard’s. What else is Walter to do but go there – the aim to find the perfect photo for the last cover and meet the deadline. Actually, what follows, in the Himalayas, are some rather nice emotional touches care of Sean Penn, and the resolution of the problem so laid-back that you might not notice, care of Shirley MacLaine.
Walter’s imaginings are entertaining, with some funny episodes, though the film is not a long laugh-aloud to fun-fest. Rather it is a somewhat romantic, comic and serious exploration of a man in mid-life crisis who has not really faced his early-life crises. Good luck to Ben Stiller.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out 26th December 2013.
20th Century Fox.