I resolved this year to start 2014 off on a good note. There’s enough negativity around these parts, my special brand of negativity that often comes packaged with tortured metaphors, and I decided to start the year off with something positive. As such, I sauntered off to my local cinema this Tuesday in search of something safe. My first attempt was Saving Mr. Banks, which was pleasant enough but at times so saccharine and heartfelt I felt the old cynicism circuits lighting up.
In desperation, I went to plan B: the blind stab, to go into something I know very little about, beyond vaguely remembering seeing a trailer or poster. A risky maneuver, but one which thankfully paid off, as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. A surprisingly enjoyable movie that I can happily recommend, but not without a flaw or two to make it interesting to write about.
The film stars Ben Stiller, who I’m not normally a fan of, but he also directed this one, and that’s yielded some good results before. Stiller is the titular Walter Mitty, a negatives processor at Life Magazine who discovers that an apparently perfect photo for the cover of Life’s last issue has gone missing.
Normally Mitty is just about the most boring man imaginable, a gray little nobody prone to elaborate fantasies like a less creepy looking Angela Anaconda, but Mitty steps out of his life of routine and tedium to track down Sean Penn’s globe-trotting photographer to find the missing negative, embarking on an adventure that doesn’t so much span the globe as just Iceland, Greenland and a bit of the Himalayas.
What I think sticks out for me the most about this one is how it appreciates quiet, simple moments as much as it does loud action sequences. The first scene is a mostly silent scene of Walter agonizing over whether or not to send a wink on eHarmony, and the film knows when to slow down and take a breath once in a while.
Of course, on the other end of the spectrum are the bombastic action sequences that see Walter jumping out of helicopters into shark-infested waters or running from volcanic eruptions, and most of those are good fun, owing mostly to some excellent camera work by Stuart Dryburgh. There’s one fantasy sequence early in the film that sees Mitty and Adam Scott (who I’m happy to see getting more mainstream work, giggling Parks and Rec fanboy that I am) fighting through the NYC streets in an over-the-top action sequence that honestly could stand next to any action movie or superhero flick you saw recently in terms of creativity and execution.
Even in the most sedate of sequences though, the camera moves with an easy grace, finding the frame with the same ease I can track down a bag of maple-bacon chips on a crowded supermarket shelf, and some of the compositions are just lovely to look at. The film is nothing if not visually striking overall. Stiller plays around a lot with things like text graphically inserted into objects on screen and superimpositions and things. More than once the creativity in the visuals brought a smile to my face.
However, at times they can be a bit too lovely. Later on, when Walter goes in his big adventure, the sweeping helicopter shots of epic Icelandic vistas or Himalayan peaks can feel a bit tourist board, a bit too focused on the beautiful landscapes. The film has this almost stalkerish obsession with extreme long shots, where the figure we’re meant to be following is a tiny blip on the screen, almost drowned out by the background, and at times it feels like there should be an Icelandic Tourist Board watermark in the corner or something.
It feels almost commercial at times. Like an ad more than a movie. When Walter finally decides to go out into the world, there’s a scene of him running through an airport to the kind of upbeat, inoffensive music used for camera commercials, with a fictional Life Magazine logo made up of feel-good pablum posing as wisdom appearing line by line in signs and things in the background and it’s like, am I being sold a subscription here? The film feels at times as though it has a covert agenda, like it’s targeting our wallets as much as anything else.
But still, I found myself enjoying the movie in spite of this. The supporting cast largely outshine Stiller himself, like Patton Oswalt (who can only ever really play Patton Oswalt, but we still love him for it) as a mostly heard but not seen eHarmony employee. There’s also a surprising number of unknown actors in the periphery in some of the more memorable roles, which is always nice to see given that Hollywood would more often than not take a known actor and have him do a terrible accent for a cheeky cameo. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ólafur Darri Ólafsson sees some more work come his way after his brief turn as a drunken helicopter pilot.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn’t what I’d strictly call a “great” film, but I have no qualms calling it very good. Say what you will about Ben Stiller as an actor, but he’s slowly proving himself to be a surprisingly competent director.