Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

There are certain actors I really respond to and movies that I anticipate because of their involvement. However, for some reason Ben Stiller has never really been one of those actors for me. Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed some movies of his and one of my favorite comedies is probably Zoolander. I just don't tend to mark a Ben Stiller movie on my calendar as one that I really need to (or even want to, for that matter) end up seeing. Having said that, the trailer for this film instantly grabbed me when I first saw it a few months ago. It was due more to the visual style and the fantastic song by Of Monsters and Men that drew my attention than Stiller, but I knew this was one I was going to see in the theater.

Walter Mitty is a middle-aged dreamer and not the most adventurous type. Working as a negative analyst for the soon to be web-based Life magazine, Walter is entrusted with a very important negative, a picture taken by legendary photojournalist Sean O'Connell. When the crucial negative #25 (which will serve as the cover of Life's final issue) is missing from the rest of the reel, however, Walter is encouraged by his coworker and crush Cheryl Melhoff to go on a journey to retrieve this lost photo. With his job on the line in the wake of the company's new direction, Walter decides to embrace life as he embarks on a globe-trotting adventure.

Self-discovery seems to be a big theme in Walter Mitty, and I wonder if this is the new direction Ben Stiller is hoping to take in his future films. Sort of a melding of independent creativity with big-budget spectacle, this film does a pretty good job of portraying and connecting the relationship between Watler's job, his family, his imagination and his newfound reality throughout his journey. On one hand, it's a solid juggling act Stiller does to balance all of these aspects while ensuring the themes are all served in the narrative. Part of where this film loses me, however, is its tendency to indulge in Walter's in-the-moment experiences that never quite translate the character's feelings to the audience. While the story strands and conceptual structure of the film work well, it doesn't really tell us anything that profound about Walter.

Thankfully the movie doesn't take itself too seriously, which allows me to forgive a lot of my complaints about its lack of emotional resonance. Stiller has great comedic instincts, and the subtleties of his performance and his engaging awkwardness often help the movie work much better than it probably should. He and Kristin Wiig do a great job of creating a believable chemistry between their characters while not taking the comedy or even the drama too far.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty ended up being more or less what I expected. It was an artistic story about making your dreams a reality by stepping out of your comfort zone, and I think pretty much anybody can relate to that. Even though I wasn't particularly moved by Walter's arc as a whole, there are a few moments of poignancy (mostly involving Sean Penn's character) that definitely made the journey worth it. This movie is pretty funny, the characters are likable and the story is probably the best that Ben Stiller has ever directed. I give The Secret Life of Walter Mitty three stars.

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence