There’s a five minute trailer for Ben Stiller’s remake of The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty in hard rotation in Cineworld cinemas right now, which would seem to suggest some over-thinking on the part of the film’s marketing team.
Cloud Atlas, a film which spanned multiple generations and mused on recurring patterns in heritage by using the same actors as different characters, with no bar to race or gender, might warrant a trailer of that length, but for Mitty, it should be altogether easier to swallow.
The premise, taken from the James Thurber short story and the 1947 film starring Danny Kaye, is based around Walter Mitty, (Stiller) a chronic day-dreamer who works as a photo editor for Life Magazine. When the magazine is acquired by a larger corporation, the new managers decide to transition from print to online-only content.
Walter is tasked with processing the photo negative for the cover of the final issue, which is a much lauded masterpiece by intrepid photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), an old friend of his. But the negative is nowhere to be found, and with allegations of negligence hanging over him, Walter decides to get out of his own head and go on a globe-trotting quest to find Sean and recover the negative.
It’s worth mentioning that Cineworld patrons may have already seen this one, as it was given a “secret screening” in their cinemas a week or two back. While it was speculated that the screening would be Anchorman 2 or The Desolation Of Smaug, it’s interesting to note that screening this film without telling people what they’re going to watch is actually going to improve word of mouth.
Post-screening, the social media buzz was far more positive about the film than it has been about the trailers. While it’s unabashedly part of the studio comedy form, replete with product placement and slightly hypocritical anti-corporate messages, it does at least have a director who’s trying something different. Whether you think he’s trying too hard at times is best left to the viewer’s discretion.
If you follow movie industry news, you’ve probably been hearing about a Walter Mitty remake for a long, long time. It’s gone through directors like Ron Howard, Chuck Russell, Steven Spielberg, Mark Waters and Jay Roach, with leading men like Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, Mike Myers, Sacha Baron Cohen and Johnny Depp, and come no closer to completion than when Stiller came on board as both director and leading man in 2011.
Unlike his last directorial effort, Tropic Thunder, Stiller doesn’t have the buffer of acting alongside other, more interesting characters at the same time as directing. To his credit, this doesn’t let down his performance overall, despite the way in which Walter is usually isolated in the centre.
Some of the better moments of the film come in his interactions with unusual characters (usually foreign, but never unkindly stereotyped or reductive) but so much of the film centres on a contactless experience of the world.
There are gorgeous shots of Iceland, Greenland and Afghanistan, but most of these scenes give the film the feel of a whistle-stop tour – Walter skateboards and cycles through the countryside, but he seldom stops without touching base with his concerns in New York, and even pops back to the US at certain intervals to advance the plot. Even when this disengaged dreamer engages with the rest of the world, he feels somewhat distant.
The early parts of the film really burst into life with the daydream sequences, including one high-powered fight scene that rivals most of this year’s climactic superhero dust-ups, as Walter wrestles with his new manager (played by a delightfully horrible Adam Scott) over a Stretch Armstrong doll.
There’s also a big laugh to be had from a skit with Walter and his love interest, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) which lampoons David Fincher’s The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. It’s funny, but it’s not the most timely reference, and that’s the kind of non sequitur that kind of slows down the first act, and contrasts so vastly with the rest of the film, it almost makes the real adventure seem less interesting.
Wiig’s character at first looks to be something of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, spurring Walter on his quest without having any real character of her own. You gradually find out more about her life, and there’s at least a progression in Walter’s attitude, from drifting off into romantic fantasies while talking to her, to actually engaging with her as their relationship develops.
A sequence in which a spectre of Wiig gives an acoustic rendition of Ground Control To Major Tom sounds cringeworthy on paper, but actually serves as one of the film’s more memorable moments. It’s a shame that the other music choices are a little more obvious, especially the scene that gets Walter out into the world, earnestly soundtracked by an Arcade Fire track. You know the first Arcade Fire song that popped into your head just now? Yeah, that one.
Most unusually, the jokes seem pretty few and far between. Sean Penn gives a surprisingly fun comic turn late in the film, and Patton Oswalt’s voice accompanies Walter on his quest throughout, as the dating site call representative who keeps encouraging him to sell himself, even in the most implausible areas of mobile phone reception. Oswalt really gives it his all, and his character gets a neat payoff near the end of the film.
By the end, no matter how he has interacted with his family, or his hero, or his dickhead boss, or the girl of his dreams, Walter’s arc (much like the film itself) feels like the work of a perfectionist – it’s gorgeous to watch, and sturdily assembled, but disconnected from the things that make its more intimate and unusual moments spark.
All of that said, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty comes out of a long and arduous spell in development hell as a handsomely constructed comedy-drama, and for better or worse, it’s Stiller’s most impressively mounted film to date. Even in its more generic moments, it always tries hard enough to keep itself well clear of mediocrity.
The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is out in UK cinemas on the 26th December.
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