Monday, 6 January 2014

L.J. SPENCE'S STARTING POINTS: THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY

L.J. SPENCE'S STARTING POINTS

14. THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (2013, dir. Ben Stiller)

06/01/2014


A good trip to the cinema leaves you feeling heroic for no good reason, other than being shown how someone, who you could be, given the circumstances, undergoes a big journey, or grows as a human being. I didn't think I would feel like this after watching Ben Stiller, but this wasn't the sort of film I was expecting to see...

...because I was expecting to see a comedy. That was what the trailer made me think.

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" was a 1939 short story written by James Thurber, about the daydreaming of a man who accompanies his wife on a shopping trip. It is a collection of vignettes, enough for a ten-minute film, so this feature film, like the previous 1949 film that starred Danny Kaye, takes the idea, and the name, and grafts an entire other story onto it. The comedy is there in Stiller's Mitty's daydreaming, jumping from a railway track to save a cat from a building about to explode, through pursuing his boss as if the Green Goblin in "Spider-Man", spending his old age with the woman of his dreams, in a homage to Brad Pitt in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button".

From there, as the Hitchcockian device of a missing photographic negative takes Walter Mitty through an extraordinary trip across Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan to find the photographer, real life then becomes bigger than the daydreaming, and the comedy is overtaken by what you are seeing, let alone what a middle-aged man can do if they put their mids to it. The conceit in Danny Kaye's version of the story is that no-one would believe the real-life story was true, but here, it is treated as an adult gap year - a way to sound more interesting, as the assistant from the eHarmony dating site makes clear throughout the film, appearing by phone every so often to help Mitty fill in the gaps on his online profile, eventually the one person that can provide cover for Mitty's story when the airport police needs proof.

In short, it is worth watching - it is the first major Hollywood film to use Iceland as a setting, and the scenery makes you wonder why that hasn't happened before, and Ben Stiller puts in a good performance as a determined Mitty, which can easily be put down to the director, Ben Stiller. But don't expect to laugh too much.


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