31 December 2013

Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

(Dir: Ben Stiller, 2013)

Comedic actors have a greater tendency than most to become tiresome when they play what is in essence the same role over and over. Take someone like Ben Stiller. In earlier films he was fun to watch but now his presence has become a reason to avoid a film. That is unless he steps a little out of the undemanding comfort zone to do something more interesting, which in comedic actor terms usually translates to dramatic. Let's call it doing a Truman Burbank, as Jim Carrey so superbly exemplified. Now that's not to say The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is any sort of stretch for Stiller, but it's a pleasing change of pace.

The character of Walter Mitty, a name synonymous with daydreaming since the original short story was published many many years ago, is a quiet, still man who is lost in the world. A man afraid to take what is in his grasp who instead finds satisfaction in daydreams where he can become the man he wants to be. Stiller, when not playing the fool, has the ability to exude an everyman quality that makes him both believable and likeable. But at the same time you know he is capable of taking those first steps to improving his life and when he does here it's so wholly satisfying that it warms the heart. The film is perhaps walking a dangerous line between seeming corny and inspiring and you're as liable to perceive it either way. But perhaps I could empathise.

This seizing of the day takes Walter to some cold but highly photogenic places, all of which inevitably look stunning and impart the sense of adventure. But there's also a clean aesthetic to the look of New York and a desire to capture the essence of film based photography and what Life magazine was about. The use of Life as the backbone for Walter's working existence and springboard for his adventure grounds everything with a feeling of purpose. It's a part of the historical cultural landscape after all. The film also benefits greatly from the romantic angle not being overplayed. Kristen Wiig's Cheryl is genuinely nice and the way the two engage continually feels sweet as everything is played at the pace of Walter's nervous uncertainty. It never oversteps.

The balance of drama to comedy is well judged too, with the laughs mostly stemming from the outlandish, effects heavy daydreams. Yet despite their over the top nature they're revealing enough to allow us to empathise. It's fair to say Stiller has done a decent job in the directors chair to make this all work. It's also the most I've enjoyed watching him on screen in quite some time - he just works as Walter. I liked The Secret Life of Walter Mitty a lot more than I was expecting. Perhaps it caught me at the right time but the inspirational nature of the story and the sweetness at it's core are quietly affecting if not occasionally rousing. At another time I might've been more dismissive, but there's something to it and that is easily embraceable.

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