The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (2013)
Cert: PG / 114 mins / Dir. Ben Stiller
The studio representative slouched to one side of the screen, his nightvision camera in-hand and his considerable stomach straining to be free of a work-shirt bought when he was two sizes slimmer. A Cineworld staff member stood in front of him, to his right. "Welcome to our second Secret Unimited Screening," he struggled over the audience chatter and in-screen muzak which hadn't been turned down for his announcement. "You've already been asked to turn your mobile phones off, and we ask that you keep them off for the duration of the film. The gentleman with me represents the makers of the film, and will be monitoring tonight's screening for any illegal recording…" (a large percentage of patrons had immediately turned their phones back on once they'd got to their seats. Either the security-rep couldn't see the glowing faces, or he just didn't care.) "I should also tell you that the film you're seeing tonight is an unfinished version, and won't be in cinemas until next month." (as it was the 25th of the month, the audience successfully hid their surprise at this exclusivity.)
After three trailers and another uneasy nail in the coffin of Kevin Bacon's credibility, the BBFC card lit up the faces of the audience… The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, it read. The audience groaned, audibly. No, seriously. Not everyone, but enough that it was a thing. A lot of the folks here had probably seen the five minute promo that ran before Thor: The Dark World, where Ben Stiller sits in a hotel room, feigning awkwardness in introducing his latest movie, whilst also giving off vibes of genuine awkwardness. It's like Stiller doesn't quite know what slot it should fit into, so he tries to cover all the bases in the time he's allotted, and the end result feels like it's all over the place, ambitiously spinning more plates than it can hope to maintain.
Sadly, that promo is a spot-on representation of the film I saw tonight. Walter Mitty features some stunning photography, and it's clear than a lot of heart has gone into making it, yet that doesn't quite translate to the screen the way you know Stiller wanted it to. It's quite often smile-inducing, either through humour or charm, but the film is never different enough to escape the box it's urging us all to break out of. The escapist daydreams which the Mitty character is famous for disappear after the first act*1, leaving a film which feels a little like a cross between a midlife crisis and a hipster re-imagining of Lord Of The Rings. I honestly believe that "skateboard past an Icelandic volcano" was the deal-breaker from day one with this project. Ben is affable enough to carry his part off, as is his just-out-of-reach romantic foil, Wiig. But everyone other than Walter is presented in strictly one-dimensional terms, which is fine as the story's being told from Mitty's point-of-view, but Walter himself seems largely pencilled-in and aimless, rounding out his own story by luck, rather than judgement.
Films don't have to fit into just one slot, but audiences do expect them to, rightly or wrongly. The biggest problem is that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty doesn't really fit into any. I can't even call it a noble failure, as it's better than that; more of a beautifully photographed mess. For a film trying so hard to be inspirational, there's a distinct lack of sincerity.
Ben Stiller tries to show us his heart, but gets distracted more than his re-imagined Walter, and ends up presenting nothing more than a whimsical rom-com; which is light on both the rom and the com. The depth of field is often breathtaking, but the depth of character leaves a lot to be desired…
Not as much as I'd have liked.
For me, not even close.
Iceland looks nice, big. Then again, Iceland always looks nice. You don't need Ben Stiller belting around on a skateboard to show it off..
Maybe with Stiller's commentary.
There's a Wilhelm in the Cineworld extended preview, when he's the ice-explorer by the drinks machine (not in that trailer above, though), but it wasn't in the cut of the film we saw. I can't actually remember the last time I heard the scream in the trailer when it wasn't in the film itself, but I'm sure it'll be in the version you see..
Why is there a photo and sculpted-bust tribute to Peter Sellers in the same shot? Stiller has credited 'Being There' as an influence in this project, but did I miss an equal and/or bigger reference to… well, someone linked with Walter Mitty? This may be indicative of a larger problem, I think...
*1 SPOILERY THINGS: Unless I'm missing something big and the whole Greenland/Icelandic adventure thing was a daydream. But I stayed until the end of the credits and there was no suggestion of that, just the Happy Hollywood Ending™. I know the whole snow leopard thing was a massive metaphor, but the film also suggests that it's actually happening as well.
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
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