The not-so-secret vision of Ben Stiller

Multi-hyphenate unlocks a thoroughly modern take on inner life

 By T.T. Stern-Enzi

 
Photo: [l to r] Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig star in “The Secret LIfe of Walter Mitty”; Rating: PG Grade: A

The ever-unassuming Walter Mitty (director Ben Stiller, seemingly unable to choose just one side of the camera to focus on) frequently zones out. That’s what his sister Odessa (Kathryn Hahn) and their mother Edna (Shirley MacLaine) call it. He’s been doing it since he was young, probably since his father died and he had to take over caring for the family. Like every kid, Walter had dreams, and rather than merely deferring them when life got in the way, he slips into a zone where he lives in his daydreams, if only for a moment.

He spends his workdays processing the photographs of Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), the premier eye in the field capturing the exotic richness of life for LIFE magazine. O’Connell experiences all of the moments surrounding the still frames that grace the covers of the signature magazine, but Walter is there to curate the constantly moving picture show. Work is little more than an extension of his dreams.

Yet, recently, Walter has become even more distracted by the presence of Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), a newbie at the magazine. He longs to connect with her, beyond the confines of online dating/social media, which has proven quite lacking in assisting him to establish the kind of relationship that he imagines possible. Walter wants to be her perfect match; the poetic daredevil willing to take off at a moment’s notice for parts unknown for that truly sublime experience.

But, of course, life intrudes; rather the end of LIFE intrudes. Walter, Cheryl and their fellow employees get the news that LIFE is being shuttered, falling victim to the rising tide of the Internet. Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), a soulless corporate fixer arrives to usher in the new digital age. Sean’s last page of negatives lands on Walter’s desk missing one pivotal shot – the one expected to be the swan song for LIFE – and a race to track down that frame spirals out of control for poor Walter, who begins to zone out so much it feels like he’s living in the zone.

Somewhere along the way, the zone transforms into real life for Walter Mitty. Gone are the surreal flights of fancy, the comic book escapades of Walter leaping into burning buildings, popping out of blown-up photographs or engaging Ted in city-street demolishing battles for supremacy (with the meek conquering the mighty), and in their place we get Walter diving headlong into real adventures beyond his wildest dreams.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” finds Stiller, the director, embracing the works of Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”) and several other members of the corps of commercial and music video directors (Jonathan Glazer, Stéphane Sednaoui, et al) featured in the Palm Directors Series. That cadre of visionaries, armed with DIY aesthetics and the restless spirit of skateboarders transforming any and every public space into their very own skate parks, explored the outer limits of the short form and discovered fantastic possibilities and potential, in many cases doing so under budgetary constraints that ultimately inspired them more than a blank check from a studio ever could.

The imaginative results here take root in the character of Walter Mitty. It is worth reminding contemporary viewers while Stiller’s film is a remake (the 1947 version featured Danny Kaye as the loveable Mr. Mitty), the original movie sprang to life from a short story by James Thurber – once upon a time, we indulged in this fine narrative form and Thurber was a master craftsman. Walter was a beleaguered Everyman, writ small, who dreamed big and it was the act of dreaming that set him free. Stiller has given us a fitting reminder of the impact of living in the real world.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

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