Saturday, January 04, 2014

Film: Walter Mitty, not even a Nike tag line production.

I give this film two stars. There are several aspects to my disappointment:

First of all, it just didn't sit straight. Before stepping into the cinema, like most people all I knew of Walter Mitty is that the character's name is sometimes used to describe the hapless day dreamer. Specifically, the definition of a Walter Mitty is "An ordinary, often ineffectual person who indulges in fantastic daydreams of personal triumphs". The problem is that Ben Stiller's version fit this definition (and my understanding) only for the first part of the movie. After about a quarter of the way through, he makes a a grand leap and starts living a fantastical, adventurous life. Thus, the basic premise of this movie turned out to be something very different from what you might expect.

Stiller says in an interview that Thurber's "short story is his own thing".

Problem is Stiller, you called your movie WALTER MITTY so viewers are going to have some expectation.

As a lover of Don Quixote, which is an emotionally rich and complex story of a man who is also lost in his imagination, I wanted some richness, depth and maybe some hints of darkness to the story. I may have been asking too much? However, it's worth noting that the original Walter Mitty story by James Thurber (1947) is much darker in tone. LIFE magazine even described Thurber as "the most funny, disturbingly funny humorist in the U.S."

What Stiller and company gave us is a movie that is really no more than Walter Mitty in name (okay, and the first quarter) only. What is playing in the cinemas is a message movie but the message is no more than the basic "Just Do It" plot line (Nike's tag line). As an aside, the Walter Mitty movie was drenched in corporate sponsorship but then again so is real life, so I can't complain on that front. Indeed, I might have enjoyed it even more if Nike sponsored the film, incorporating the "Just Do It" message into the merchandise and dialogue, and I am not saying this cynically.

The problem with message movies is that the message matter, especially when the target audience is children. The likes of Anchorman, Zoolander and The Expendables are popcorn entertaintment with no message other than we're going to be goofy or we're going to kick some ass and blow some s**t up.

Secondly, the movie even failed to deliver the simple Nike message convincingly. When Walter somehow goes from a man having crazy but harmless delusions, which freeze him out of reality for a short while, to a man of adventure, he is actually becoming somebody who seems to follow his first instinct instead of following a dream made into a realisable reality. The first thing Mitty does in his new frame of mind is to get into a helicopter with a completely drunk pilot. Life Lesson 1: step out of your comfort zone and take really stupid risks. He then goes on to jump out of the helicopter into the freezing ocean, losing the package of radio components he is supposed to be delivering to a boat. He is fished out of the water just before he freezes to death. Life Lesson 2: If somebody says jump, just open the door and jump. You could be on a plane or a train, it doesn't matter. Jump already! It helps if the instructor is completely off his trolley on alcohol. Such important lessons continue through the film, with Walter Mitty being brave but completely stupid as he skateboards his way to a volcano eruption (visually, this is a great scene), and treks up mountains.

The conclusion is that while this may be a fun movie for children, it fills them with terrible life lessons; to live a life of stupid risks and not to worry because every adventure will lead to a good outcome. The gods of fortune will always look to your favour, no matter how often you cross the line from courage and bravery into wrecklessness and stupidity.

In a nub, Stiller himself at the Film Society Lincoln Centre said"There is so much potential there for a film in terms of a life someone lives in their head." What happened to all this potential Stiller?

I think I know what happened. Steve Conrard happened. Conrad was the writer the movie and he also gave us the emotionally bland, strikingly terrible piece of saccharine nonsense that is the "Pursuit of Happyness", another movie whose uplifting message is completely off point and depressing.The script was simply not sufficient.

A piece in Variety magazine has Stiller describing Mitty as a character who wants to be “a better version of himself,” and a “A different version of himself.” Of course, nobody bar the truly vainglorious will not be looking to become something better. Indeed, if you can truly "zone out" like Walter Mitty and live a rich fantasy, then what need is there to take stupid risks and physically live the life of an adventurer hero, which would most probably get you killed after a few short weeks? I won't travel down this path of questioning because it's got too many philosophical angles to cover and I'm not the man for the job.
The third and last gripe is that the movie inadvertently led me down the garden path. When Walter Mitty starts his adventures, the unlikely appearance of his mothers cake and of a randomly placed Papa John's pizza restaurant had me thinking that it may all be a dream sequence. I didn't want this to be the case because it could have rendered the movie meaningless, but it did at least point to a richer sub-text that wasn't there.

On the upside, this simple, poorly written movie made me: think deeply; miss Don Quixote terribly; want to read the original Walter Mitty; add the movie Greenberg to my "movies to watch" list (a highly praised film in which Stiller's chracter also has a life crises).


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