Monday, October 07, 2013

NY Film Festival: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Walter Mitty started life as the "hero" of a short story by James Thurber that first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker magazine on March 18, 1939. This short tale of a man, who lives a mundane life and only seems to come alive inside his heroic daydreams, was the perfect antidote for a country coming out of an economic depression, and on the verge of a second World War. In 1944 the short story was adapted as a radio play with Robert Benchley playing the daydreaming Mitty, while in 1947 independent film producer Samuel Goldwyn adapted the story into a lavish Technicolor film, shaping the narrative to suit the comic talents of actor Danny Kaye.

This new film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, produced by the son and grandson of Samuel Goldwyn, is a vanity project directed and starring Ben Stiller. In this new take on the story, written by Steven Conrad, Walter is a bachelor, taking care of his aging mom (Shirley MacLaine). Some of the first shots of the film reveal Walter sitting at his computer, and looking at the ever decreasing funds on his checkbook after setting up his mom in an old-age home. He lives alone in the Upper West Side, and is having technical problems sending a wink on eHarmony to a co-worker he is interested in, played by Kristen Wiig. Both of them work midtown at Life magazine, which is soon to shut down and join the list of venerable publications reduced to an Internet dot com. Walter Mitty, who works in the bowels of the Time-Life building, as a "negative asset manager" misplaces a negative that had been sent to the magazine's office by famed but enigmatic photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), and in order to impress the girl he loves he sets on a quest to find the famed shutterbug: a journey that takes him from barren Greenland, to an erupting volcano in Iceland, to the mountains of Afghanistan. It also takes him out of his dreams, and into reality.

Before long, Walter changes into the man of his imagination (he becomes a kind of a cartoon character). Conrad's script changes the original intent of the Thurber story as the title character goes from a mensch lost in his daydreams to a valiant doer who, in a schmaltzy conclusion, gets the girl, as befits any hero. And it's not a daydream anymore: it's for real! Had Stiller concluded his film giving the audience a hint that Walter has not progressed out of his reveries, and that we are once again stuck in another fantasy, the film would have been more interesting. However, Stiller is not out to make a depressing film about a daydreamer, but about a man who can overcome all of that and get the girl. The film is punctuated by rock songs that point to this theme. Curiously, David Bowie's great "Space Oddity," a song about an astronaut who becomes marooned in space, is spun as the story of a man of great courage overcoming great odds and "going into the unknown."

Unfortunately, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty chooses to forgo the unknown, and tread on familiar ground. As a result, it stays earthbound and revels in its schmaltzy feel-good universe.

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