The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)


Walter Mitty doesn't exactly stand out in a crowd.

Walter Mitty doesn’t exactly stand out in a crowd.

(2013) Adventure (20th Century Fox) Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Adrian Martinez, Patton Oswalt, Jonathan C. Daly, Terence Bernie Hines, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Gunnar Helgason, Kai Lennox, Conan O’Brien, Andy Richter, Haroon Nawabi, Marcus Antturi, Paul Fitzgerald, Grace Rex. Directed by Ben Stiller

There is a real difference between the lives we lead and the lives we lead in our heads. In our own worlds, we’re beautiful, smart, popular, courageous, daring, heroic and irresistible to our preferred sex. We are saviors of the weak and protectors of the helpless.

For Walter Mitty (Stiller) the disconnect is more than most. He is a shy and somewhat socially clumsy man who works at Life Magazine as a negative assets manager (i.e. he is in charge of the negatives of the photographs for the iconic magazine) and often his daydreams stop him dead in his tracks. His sister (Hahn) calls it zoning out.

Walter crushes on the lovely Cheryl Melhoff (Wiig), recently hired in the accounting department but is too unselfconfident to approach her. What’s worse is that Life is about to be shut down, as announced by the somewhat petty transition manager (Scott) who also says the very last issue will have a cover photo by the magazine’s most famous photographer, Sean O’Connell (Penn). The problem is that the negative for the cover isn’t with the rest of O’Connell’s submissions.

O’Connell, a rootless sort who travels the world looking for that perfect shot isn’t exactly easy to get hold of – he doesn’t even own a cell phone (the teenagers in the audience couldn’t believe their ears). So the only way to get that cover for the last issue is to go out there and fine the reclusive photographer. However that’s easier said than done. The only clues to Sean’s whereabouts lay in the galley sheet of the same set of photos as the missing negative and those clues are pretty vague at best.

While ostensibly based on the beloved James Thurber short story of the same name, the title, the lead character and his daydreaming conceit are basically all that the short story and this movie have in common. Thurber’s short story is much darker in tone and even the Danny Kaye version from 1947 which wasn’t all that much of a match for the short story either was much less uplifting than the Ben Stiller interpretation. It’s all about seizing the day and living life while you still can.

Stiller is a likable enough lead and he has just enough schlubbiness to invest the characters he normally plays with a kind of underdog situation and that is true here as well. Walter is a good-hearted sort who doesn’t have enough go-getter in him to fill a thimble. He is well-liked but not well-respected if you get my drift. People dismiss him as a hopeless dreamer. Stiller fills this role well.

Veteran Shirley MacLaine makes a rare but welcome screen appearance as Walter’s mom but isn’t really given a lot to do – still, she’s always worth the added effort to see her. Comic Patton Oswalt also puts in an appearance as an eHarmony phone representative (mostly we hear his voice in phone conversations) and I’m reminded at how good he can be onscreen as he was in the Charlize Theron black comedy Young Adult.

Stiller the director also makes some interesting moves, nicely going from reality to fantasy and uses graphics within the film to advance the story. It’s a visually clever film. The soundtrack is awfully nice to with Swedish indie artist Jose Gonzalez supplying songs. So why didn’t I like this movie more?

The movie lacked soul, in my opinion, which is a different thing than heart which it has a lot of. I just didn’t get that spark of joy that the film should have produced. Sure one roots for Walter to find Sean and to get the girl but there are too many cliché moves and not enough genuine passion to make the movie more memorable. That’s not to say that it isn’t a pleasant diversion – you can do worse than to spend your entertainment dollar on Walter Mitty. It just let me down a bit so I feel justified in rating it perhaps lower than I would have liked given the source material and the talent involved.

The overall message of doing instead of dreaming is a tricky one to navigate. There is nothing wrong with dreaming big – every action begins as a dream more or less – but it shouldn’t happen at the expense of living life to the fullest. Not all of us can get on a plane to the middle of nowhere and embark on an epic adventure but that doesn’t mean we can’t embark on the epic adventures that are already around us.

REASONS TO GO: Inventive use of graphics and effects. Always a joy to see MacLaine.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks spark.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of crude language and some action violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the fishing boat lands in Iceland, Walter is urged to grab the lone bicycle before a group of “horny Chileans” from a different trawler gets the bike to use to get to the strip club. Those Chileans would be sorely disappointed because strip clubs have been essentially illegal in Iceland since 2010

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bedtime Stories

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Her

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Memento


Memento

Do be wary when Guy Pearce wants to show you his vacation snapshots.

(2000) Mystery (Newmarket) Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Russ Fega, Jorja Fox, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet Ransom Harris, Thomas Lennon, Callum Keith Rennie, Kimberly Campbell, Marianne Muellerleile. Directed by Christopher Nolan

 

There is a yardstick I use with thrillers. The simpler they are, the better they work, but when it comes to plot twists, the bigger, the better.

Memento, directed by then-newcomer Christopher Nolan (who got  a lot of messages on his answering machines from major studios after this nifty little piece came out) has a plot device stunning in its simplicity. Leonard Shelby (Pearce) is unable to make new memories. He forgets where he is, what he’s doing, even what he just said a few minutes ago. It just fades away, like an Etch-a-Sketch on a pressure cooker.

However, his long-term memories are intact. He knows that in his previous life, he was a successful insurance investigator. He also knows that his wife was raped and murdered by someone he knows only as “John G.” However, in the attack on his wife, Leonard was smacked hard enough on the head to give him brain damage.

Leonard was able to shoot and kill the assailant of his wife. However, his injury happened after the shot was fired; therefore, there was a second person involved in the attack. However, the police don’t believe a brain-damaged man, and don’t think John G., whoever he was, was clever enough to erase all traces of his presence. Leonard uses his organizational skills honed from his years as an insurance fraud investigator which he has somehow retained, making notes to himself, taking Polaroids of those he is associating with, and tattooing particularly vital bits of information on his body so that unlike written notes, they can’t get lost or misplaced.

So Leonard is searching, but in a particularly smart bit of moviemaking, the story is told backwards, following Leonard’s torturous trek. He is assisted by Teddy (Pantoliano) and Natalie (Moss), two people who may or may not be trustworthy. As the story unfolds, we become as Leonard, lacking in critical information that explains the motivations of the characters involved but as the movie progresses, we see what happened in the past which explains what happened previously. Think of the film as 113 minute-long flashback. This movie would never work as well with a traditional linear storyline. It’s a gutsy move by Nolan, and it pays off.

I’m deliberately keeping plot details to a minimum. Because of the nature of the story, it’s best not to reveal too much. This is one of the smartest movies I’ve ever seen; it requires the viewer to pay attention, and it requires the viewer to think. In other words, if you’re looking for brainless summer fare, it’s best to keep moving down the list of rentals and/or streaming movies.

Pearce gives a low-key performance as Leonard. Up to that point he hadn’t really followed up his jaw-grinding performance in L.A. Confidential with anything noteworthy (don’t get me started on Ravenous or his phoned-in work on Rules of Engagement), finally makes a movie worthy of his talents. Moss, so memorable in The Matrix trilogy, is terrific again here in a role very different from Trinity.

Nolan is someone to keep an eye on. In many ways, this movie has the same kind of risk-taking that M. Night Shyalaman showed in The Sixth Sense. It’s that good, certainly one that will be appearing on a lot of year-end best lists. The final twist at the end is not the kind that will blow you right out of your seat, but it elegantly fits in with the various twists and turns the story has been taking throughout. If Alfred Hitchcock were alive today, this is the kind of movie he would be making. Higher praise for a movie I cannot sing.

WHY RENT THIS: Innovative story structure flawlessly executed. Fine performances from Pierce and Moss. A thinking person’s cinematic mystery.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Plot is a bit pedestrian and final twist isn’t particularly mind-blowing.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are plenty of bad words, a heaping helping of violence, a rape (although not graphically portrayed) and a brief scene of drug use.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The original DVD release included an IFC interview with Nolan, the short story that the movie was based upon (written by Nolan’s brother Jonathan)  and a feature illustrating how the clues in the film lined up. The Collector’s Edition DVD included these as well as a copy of the director’s shooting script and the ability to play the film in reverse order.  The original 2006 Blu-Ray edition contained none of these, oddly enough. Last year’s 10 year anniversary Blu-Ray release restored most of these features with the exception of the director’s shooting script and the ability to play the film in reverse; however it did add a new interview with Nolan about the film, a diagram of the tats on Leonard’s body as well as Leonard’s journal.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $37.9M on a $9M production budget; the movie was a modest hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rear Window

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Alex Cross