Friday, January 30, 2015

DVD of the Week: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The blurring of fantasy and reality is - or at least should be - a rich source of drama. Several filmakers, most notably Terry Gilliam, have made it their stock in trade, but the Dream Sequence is a pretty ubiquitous device. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is pretty much all about Dream Sequences, the idea that someone can escape the humdrum of their existence into a more exciting one, and whilst it doens't really owe a lot (other than core concept) from the earlier film whose name it borrows, it makes a decent stab at it. Directed and starring Ben Stiller, the movie follows Walter Mitty, a "Negative Asset Manager" at Life Magazine, but lives a quiet life, in a quiet job, whist dreaming of asking out a co-worker (Kristen Wiig) and the waiting for that moment when his life will explode into action. As the magazine is shut down, the photograph earmarked for the last Cover goes missing, and Walter sets out to find it by tracking down the elusive photographer (Sean Penn), wherever he happens to be in the world.

So I'm a terrible Daydreamer, I really am. So a lot of Walters character I found it easy to empathise with, especially those moments he sort of phases out into his imagination. They're also pretty fun sequences, punctuating a much slower-paced movie with flamboyantly daft voyages of the imagination, which must have been pretty fun to put together. What makes Walter harder to like is his flat and timid personality, which is done as a counter point, but is maybe overdone. I was reminded (unfavorably) of Stranger Than Fiction. with a likewise milquetoast hero, but one whom I warmed to a lot more.

The other big problem with the film is that once Walter starts off on his real adventure, the conflict between his fantasy and real life just sort of disappears. There is a great moment when his imagination gives him the impetus to get out there in the first place, but after that he's on this fantastic journey that is really a fantastic journey, so the central conflict just isn't there any more. It stops being about the conflict between dreams and reality and just becomes a life-affirming mush about getting out there and doing stuff.

Not that that's a bad thing, or that it's badly done. It isn't - it is genuinely warm and really nicely filmed, and after a while Walter did grown on me. But the film lacks grit, lacks that flash of darkness or doubt that would make it work better, make it's highs, higher. A story where Walter was only travelling across the country but in his imagination was leaping from helicopters and climbing mountains would make the point of how much internal courage he needed to do these (to others) small things, but without that friction the film feels a little too light.

It comes down to being one of those films that is just sort of "fine." It's got a lot to commend it, but at the same time it feels like a missed opportunity to do something grander and more interesting - something it clearly aspired to be. I guess I'll just have to dream of that film, and let this one fade into the background.