NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: The East Coast crowd was the first to finally get a look at Ben Stiller‘s long-awaited remake of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in which he stars with Academy Award nominee Kristen Wiig and Academy Award winners Shirley MacLaine and Sean Penn. Expectations were high following a trailer that wowed many with its visual style and seemingly interesting premise. In the end, Stiller’s take on the 1947 classic is rather bombastic and brings forth narrative clichés and messy executions. This isn’t to say it’s a complete misfire. There are definite and obvious positives to take away.
The entire camera work by Stuart Dryburgh, most notable for his work on Jane Campion’s “The Piano” twenty years ago, is smoothly appealing with stunning shots for the audience to sink their teeth into. As the film travels throughout different parts of the world including Iceland and Greenland, two places that haven’t been explored that much in film according to screenwriter Steve Conrad, are stunning. We have to give credit to director Stiller who knows how to frame his films exceedingly well. There are elements where he takes his cues from films like “Stranger than Fiction” and “Garden State.” At the press conference he mentioned watching “The Apartment” with the cast in order to get a feel for what he wanted this sprawling epic to feel like. Unfortunately, “Walter Mitty” doesn’t resemble nor bring any of the feelings that the Oscar-winning Best Picture was able to achieve.
Attempting to take Stiller on as a “visionary” director seemed a bit far-fetched when his filmography have included the comedic greats like “Tropic Thunder” and “Reality Bites.” This is surely his most ambitious effort he’s attempted. One thing is for sure, Stiller hasn’t been this good in front of the camera in his entire career. While the narrative structure of “Walter Mitty” is incredibly uneven and stereo typically constructed, Stiller puts some of his acting chops forward. It’s good to see him in something like this. A Golden Globe nomination could definitely come his way.
Steve Conrad‘s script is a jumbled farce, misfiring on comedic executions and inserting beats that have no real relevance to the story. A “Benjamin Button” joke, though funny to watch, provides no purpose to our tale. I’m also tired of watching the “nerdy office guy” transform himself into the cool and collected man by film’s end. Note to filmmakers, just because your main character is in a shirt and tie at the beginning of the movie, you can’t just let them grow a beard, put on a sweater and jeans, and suddenly the audience is supposed to believe he’s this “new person.” This movie is an epic fantasy tale about a man who daydreams about things that would be more outlandish than the real world. There’s a false sense of reality when we’re in the “real world.” Jumping on a plane, suddenly flying across the world, and then receiving cell phone reception in the Himalayas is not exactly something that would happen in today’s age.
Kristen Wiig really tries, god bless her soul. Playing our love interest Cheryl, Wiig is a recently divorced, single mom who, for no real reason whatsoever, takes an interest in Walter’s “mystery” that he must solve. Wiig’s “moment” is unfortunately cut short by a directorial choice by Stiller. A scene of her playing guitar and singing the first few bars of “Space Odyssey” by David Bowie builds up before being cut short by an insertion of the original number. Wasted. It did make me pop it in on my way home so I guess it’s not a complete miss.
Oscar winners Sean Penn and Shirley MacLaine are the best of the cast, using their veteran style and wits to make a wonderful and memorable impression. Same goes for Kathryn Hahn, who needs a great role in the near future. She’s versatile in comedy as we’ve seen in “Step Brothers” but she excels just as well in serious, heartbreaking turns like in “Revolutionary Road.” She doesn’t have much to offer our tale in this case. No fault of her own. Should also mention that Adam Scott from NBC’s “Park and Recreation” is probably one of the funniest villains of the year. His comedic timing is pretty spot on and continues to shine in sleazy, douchebag roles.
Let’s not forget that this tale builds up to a final image that is rather anti-climatic and much of a letdown. I can appreciate the respect and passion that Stiller has for the source material and more times than not, the film is entertaining however, nothing about the film revolutionizes the medium. Mass audiences will probably fall for it in a big way especially around the holidays. A big box office is likely in its future.
From the looks of it, the film is going to be incredibly divisive. Some will love it, others will be disappointed. I unfortunately fall more towards the latter of that equation. “Walter Mitty” is a decent time at the movie and is definitely in contention for several technical Oscars. Things like Production Design, Cinematography, and Visual Effects are possibilities.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” opens in theaters December 25.