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The problem with actor-director Ben Stiller’s latest vehicle is its pigeonholing a complex character into the finding-love-in-an-urban-jungle story arc of a romantic comedy. Perhaps an attempt at relatability – if a socially awkward office drone with waylaid dreams embodies what we all fear to become.
The film is an adaptation of James Thurber’s short story, ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, published in The New Yorker in 1939. The aging Mitty entertains heroic visions of performing life-saving operations, flying a bomber plane through skies rent with cannon fire and presiding as commander of a ship on hurricane-ravaged seas. Vicarious indulgence allows Mitty to escape the insipidity of suburban life and his overbearing wife. Like in Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, fantasy throws reality into stark relief as a criticism of modern life.
Stiller’s take, however, misses some of this subtext. Modern-day Walter Mitty is a negative asset manager at Life magazine, which is transitioning from print to digital, and lay-offs are rife (in real life, Life ceased publication in 1972). When the negative chosen for the magazine’s final cover goes missing, he must track down revered photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) or face the inevitable pink slip.
Mitty’s cookie-cutter apartment block, verbal constipation and habit of “zoning out” are metaphorically dwarfed by the marble-tiled, hallowed halls of Time-Life’s offices, bearing poster-sized photographs of Apollo 11’s launch, Mahatma Gandhi, president John F. Kennedy, and other venerable feats and figures of humankind.
When Mitty begins his search for the reclusive O’Connell based on clues from the three other negatives that came with the missing ‘Number 25’, he strides purposefully past these iconic shots (in slow motion, naturally) to the buoyant soundtrack of José Gonzalez’s “Step Out.” So begins a ‘finding oneself’, perseverance-testing journey through Greenland, Iceland and ungoverned Afghanistan – proving, once and for all, that mediocrity is remediable. Well, that was the high-minded intention.
But too much time is spent on Mitty’s burgeoning romance with co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) and their bumbling getting-to-know-each-other heart-to-hearts, conferring a romantic comedy veneer that clouds the film’s intentions. Furthermore, Mitty’s characteristic imaginings are reduced to saving chihuahuas from burning buildings, winning Melhoff’s heart and even a recreation of a scene from ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, in which a much older, shrunken Mitty, nestled against Melhoff on a porch swing after decades of marriage, rasps, “My little heart’s no bigger than a quarter but it’s as full as Fort Knox.” Melhoff responds, “Ssh, just nestle in here and die.”
Despite a winning soundtrack and breathtaking visuals by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh that would make National Geographic proud, ‘Mitty’’s romantic comedy clichés subtract from it, leaving little room for character development (on the phone to Cheryl while in Iceland, Mitty confesses, “I used to have a mohawk and a backpack and I guess this idea of who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do.” How original.)
Mitty is rendered as a stereotypical underdog who can barely make eye contact with snarky Life managing director Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) and his “zoning out” is fodder for ridicule, missing the point of James Thurber’s examination of general dissatisfaction with reality.
Even after Mitty fights off a shark in near-freezing waters, careens down Icelandic slopes on a skateboard and wins over an Afghanistan warlord (with his mother’s homemade clementine cake, no less), he’s still, well, his same old humdrum self. And he’s out of a job. But (spoiler alert) he gets the girl, and he no longer needs to “zone out” now that he’s experienced adventure. And he faces down Ted Hendricks by telling him to be “less of a dick”. In short, a happy ending that ticks all the proverbial boxes.
What are Mitty’s dreams after his life-changing journey? How does he feel about losing his job and what’s next? Is mediocrity remediable? We never find out.
The film is replete with Stiller’s wry, subtle humor, such as the rhetoric of the drunken helicopter pilot in Iceland: “Never cheat on your woman when you live in a country with only eight people in it”, and the fact that the airplane Mitty arrives in is larger than the clapboard airport. But certainly Stiller had more farsighted intentions in reinterpreting Thurber’s work than to wrestle a square into a circle and milk a few laughs.
Image credit: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty via Facebook