Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Movie Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

At my screening of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty last night, as the screen faded to white and the words "Directed by Ben Stiller" appeared, I heard a few members of the audience remark in surprise "Oh, I didn't know he made this."

It's an understandable reaction, as Walter Mitty is not what we have come to expect from the director of Cable Guy, Zoolander and the excellent but outlandish Tropic Thunder. While Stiller's latest also straddles the line between realism and fantasy – depicted here as a series of amusing day dreams inside the titular character's mind – it is less a comedy than an ebulliently positive celebration of the joy of living and a melancholy tribute to the magazine publishing industry.

Walter Mitty is a negative asset manager (as in actual, tangible, honest-to-God negative film prints) at a slightly-fictionalized version of LIFE magazine, which you may recall published it's final monthly magazine in May of 2000. He is the quintessential cubicle drone, punching his time card for 16 straight years before going home to a life of check-book balancing and short-sleeve-dress-shirt ironing. He pines for a coworker (Kristen Wiig) and goes so far as creating an eHarmony account in the hopes of interacting with her, but is barred from doing so due to the pervasive blank life experience sections in his profile (he seeks help from an eHarmony IT guy, voiced by American treasure Patton Oswalt).

But LIFE, is ending, and Walter is tasked with tracking down the image for the final cover, shot by the reclusive Sean O'Connell, an artistic nomad personified by Sean Penn. After a little prodding, Walter uncharacteristically throws caution to the wind and sets out on a voyage of discovery that leads him to Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan via Yemen ("That's a violent place," an airport security guard muses. "Yeah," Walter replies. "That's why the airfare was only $84.")

Beyond Walter, the supporting characters are thinly developed: from Kathryn Hahn as Walter's failed-actress sister to Adam Scott as a snarky "transition manager" sent from upper management to fire everyone and whose defining characteristic is the world's ugliest beard (you'll want to reach through the screen and tear it from his face by the end of the movie). His interplay with Stiller is fun, but it's clear that his job is to be the antagonist for a few minutes before getting out of Walter's way.

But that's ok, since this movie is, unapologetically, about Walter's journey from repetition robot to life-liver. It's also a surprising beautiful film, presented as tapestry of stunning images as Stiller hops from one exotic location to the next tied to the beats of a fist-pumping soundtrack of Rogue Wave, Of Monsters and Men and Arcade Fire.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an infectiously charming film that uplifts without insulting the intelligence of the audience, a rare feat in today's cynical world and, at a proletariat-friendly PG rating, one that offers a higher-quality family option for the holiday season.

Grade: B+

*The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens nationwide on Dec. 25.

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