Ben Stiller wants you to imagine him skateboarding in the shadow of an erupting Icelandic volcano.
He wants you to imagine him boldly leaping forth from a hovering helicopter, to splash down in freezing cold shark-infested waters. He wants you to imagine him playing slo-mo soccer at sunset with a posse of smiling Himalayan peasants – their beatific smiles telling you all you need to know about the simpler, inherently purer pleasures of a life lived halfway up a mountain.
Now, you might say Ben’s a dreamer, but he’s not the only one. There are plenty of folks over at 20th Century Fox, the studio which has backed The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to the tune of a reputed $90million, who will be hoping this contemporary revision of James Thurber’s 1939 short story will strike a chord with audiences. That the cinema-going public will see Stiller’s Walter, a shy photo archivist working at (the in-reality-long-defunct) LIFE Magazine, as an avatar for themselves, an emblem of the desire to break free from the spirit-sapping workplace drudgery which constitutes the daily purgatory for so many.
This new Mitty movie arrives in multiplexes having been in the works for a while, to say the least. Back in 1994, the year that a 28-year-old Stiller was making his debut as actor-director with Reality Bites, producer Sam Goldwyn Jr. set the project up at New Line with Stiller’s future Cable Guy star Jim Carrey in the title role (Goldwyn’s dad, Sam Sr., the ‘G’ in MGM, had produced the 1947 Mitty, starring Kaye).
From there it proceeded to slow-bake in the fires of Development Hell for the better part of two decades, passing from studio to studio, actor to actor (Mike Myers, Sacha Baron Cohen and Stiller’s Starsky & Hutch co-star Owen Wilson amongst them), and director to director (including Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg, Gore Verbinski and Mean Girls’ Mark Waters). The impasse finally ended when Stiller signed on to star in early 2011, and a five-minute sizzle reel subsequently convinced the Fox bigwigs to let him take up the directorial reins in addition to his acting duties.
But what made Derek Zoolander so passionate about bringing to the screen a story which had interested all those other A-listers without ultimately interesting them enough to actually go ahead and make the damn thing?
Well, watching the film now, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that its director-star sees it not only as a piece of diverting entertainment, a worthwhile factor in the 2013 seasonal release schedule, but as a statement – saying something about where he is as a filmmaker and also about modern living in general.
One of the photos hanging on the wall in the LIFE building where Walter works is a portrait of Peter Sellers, and that picture, along with the walking on air promo posters for Mitty, offer a fairly blatant nod to Sellers’ last screen classic, Being There (Shirley MacLaine, who played the lonely wife in that 1979 flick, shows up in Mitty as Walter’s lovably kooky mother). The allusion is not so much drawn between the two films though as it is between their stars; a pair of world renowned clowns trying to show what they can do in more substantial roles.
Having said that, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty aspires too to the deceptively barbed sting of Being There, albeit with 21st century corporate politics – embodied by Adam Scott’s downsizing dickwad Ted – rather than Washington machinations coming in for the receiving end of the flail’s lash. However, in terms of both wit and emotional intelligence, the movie comes up well short of its self-selected forebear.
As you suffer through the sub-high school movie shtick of Walter mooning over office crush Cheryl (Kristen Wiig, doing her best in a clichéd single mom role) while Ted flips paperclips at him like he’s Biff ragging on George McFly, you find yourself longing for the sharpness and venom of Stiller’s Greenberg collaborator Noah Baumbach. If only he could have been enticed to punch up the script by Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness), then the satire might have had some actual snap, rather than the gentle nibble of a hungry toddler.
As it stands, Mitty’s mile-wide soppy streak says less about the way you, me and everyone we know live now than it does about the sanitised, semi-lobotomised nature of studio filmmaking today.
On the one hand, the movie’s message is be bold, live life on your own terms and follow your heart. What this translates into in practical terms though is Walter steadily regressing back into childhood, via a previously unused travel journal, inane chats with an eHarmony rep (Patton Oswalt – other dating services ARE available), not to mention that bloody skateboard.
The Stiller-curated soundtrack offers a similar dose of the dull masquerading as the dynamic. Made up of the likes of Arcade Fire, Of Monsters and Men, and José González, it’s the epitome of dinner party good taste, peddling a thin pastiche of genuine emotion back to the mainstream.
The action all feels very slight, weak and whimsical – especially when it comes to the fantasy sequences. Lavishly and no doubt expensively realised as those ‘Mittyesque’ moments are, they say little about their parent movie’s central character the way Tom Courtenay’s carefully constructed anti-reality in Billy Liar does.
They instead come over as elaborate extensions of Stiller’s familiar awards podium skits, as well as sops to Fox execs nervous that their star’s new movie is light on Night at the Museum-style hijinks (the sole of Walter’s daydreams to really hit the comedy mark is the lampoon of David Fincher’s excremental Benjamin Button).
Another of the photo portraits hanging in the LIFE building is of John Winston Lennon (whose #9 Dream is covered by González), and as with Sellers, Stiller would appear to be aligning himself with the former Beatle; two global entertainers using the platform of their fame to offer a deeper message to the wider public.
However, like plenty before him, Stiller embraces Lennon the dreamer without channeling the vital counterbalance of Lennon the cynic. And so lack-lustre is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, as timid in its own way as its eponymous character, that it doesn’t call to mind the optimism of Imagine so much as it begs for the war cry of another Lennon solo outing: Gimme some truth.