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 The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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Donald McKinney
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PostSubject: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty   Fri Dec 13, 2013 10:19 pm

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty started life as a short story written by James Thurber in 1939, and originally published in The New Yorker magazine, before being published in Thurber's anthology book†My World and Welcome to It in 1942. The story caught the imagination of Hollywood, and it wasn't long before it was optioned by producer Samuel Goldwyn, and it was made into a bright and cheerful comedy in 1947 directed by†Norman Z. McLeod, and starring Danny Kaye.†Goldwyn held on to the rights, and it fell to his son Samuel Goldwyn Jr. who re-optioned the rights to the story in the mid-1990's, and set about doing a new version of Thurber's story. Goldwyn Jr. offered the project to directors such as Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, and actors such as Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and Johnny Depp, all of whom passed it on. Then it fell to Ben Stiller, who saw potential in the film, then Goldwyn Jr. asked if Stiller would direct it as well. Stiller is no stranger to directing, his directorial debut Reality Bites (1994) was a darkly comic look at Generation X. His follow-up had been the hugely underrated The Cable Guy (1996), which alienated viewers at the time, but had much to admire about it. He followed that up with Zoolander (2001) and Tropic Thunder (2008), both very funny spoofs on celebrity and fame. With The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Stiller crafts something beautiful and profound, a magical, whimsical and moving story of life, and how we try to escape from it, and how we have to face it. It's punctuated with surreal fantasy and some funny comedy.

Walter Mitty (Stiller) works in the photography department of Life Magazine, which he's dismayed to find is being closed down and being turned into an online only publication, under the rule of aggressive and rude new manager Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott). Mitty has feelings for co-worker†Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), and Mitty has quite vivid and realistic daydreams about him trying to impress her, although in reality he has no confidence. All that changes when for the final issue of Life Magazine, he's sent a reel of film by legendary photo-journalist Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), with one of the images set to be the cover of the final issue. However, the negative for that issue cover has inexplicably gone missing, and Mitty can't find it anywhere, and he's getting pressure by Hendricks to present him with the image, Mitty turns to †Cheryl for help, and she's able to help track down where O'Connell might be. Mitty goes off on an odyssey across the globe to find O'Connell, travelling to Greenland where he was last seen, then on by boat, fighting off sharks with fishermen, then to Iceland, where O'Connell is up a volcano. With his job under threat, Mitty's daydreams start to merge with real life, and he learns that sometimes real life can be much more exciting and unbelievable than a daydream, but his thoughts and feelings for Cheryl keep him going and ensure he doesn't give up.

Early versions of this new adaptation were more faithful to Thurber's episodic story, however it was seen as quite dated by the time Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad (The Weather Man (2002) and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)) came on board, the original plot of Thurber's story seemed a tad old hat. However, they kept the premise of Thurber's book, about how Mitty's daydreams break him out of his humdrum existence and give him a sense of hope in life. This one is an allegory on big business, and how saving money affects everyone, as is demonstrated here when Life Magazine is downsized to appear online only. There's no way what Mitty is doing will save his job, it's his duty to know what happened to the missing negative and recover it. Plus, it gives Mitty, a quiet man who keeps to himself and devotes himself to his work breaks away from all that, not in a daydream, but in real life. Stiller has fun with the story, and he creates a magical film with a lot of brilliant imaginative details on display, and from the cityscapes of New York, to the vast wilderness of Iceland, which also doubles for Greenland and Afghanistan in the film, add a brilliant sense of atmosphere to the film, indeed this is an atmospheric film with some brilliant little details and it's very light and airy too, it makes for beautiful viewing and it's very easy and beautiful on the eye.

Stiller got the very best talent to help bring this fantastic and real world to life, behind the camera Stiller recruited Oscar-nominated cinematographer†Stuart Dryburgh, whose work on The Piano (1993),†Analyze This (1999) and Bridget Jones' Diary (2001) got acclaim). It's a film with some lovely images, especially the sequences shot in Iceland, which come up wonderfully on screen, and Dryburgh captures the vistas with a professional sheen. There's some lovely design throughout the film by Jeff Mann, who worked with Stiller on Tropic Thunder, as well as doing work on†Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) and Transformers (2007). From the drabness of the Life offices to the grand vistas of Mitty's fantasies and his own real life adventures, they come up well on film and are very imaginative. Some of the shots and framing in the film come up as photos that wouldn't look out of place in Life magazine. If anything, this isn't your ordinary mainstream romantic fantasy-comedy, it's an art film deep down and it's proud of it, it's a film to look upon, and it's one to admire, like a painting in a gallery.

Stiller has brought together a brilliant cast for the film, led by himself. Acting in a film and directing it at the same time is never an easy job, but maybe because he's done it 4 times before now, Stiller makes it easy. Mitty is a romantic at heart, a pure fantasist, but once he goes on his Quixotic crusade to find O'Connell the photographer and the missing image, he become a hero, and Stiller shows maturity as actor and director with this film, mixing deadpan and comedic mugging when necessary, and it comes up well during the film. Kristen Wiig makes for a lovely, bubbly love interest, who is never far from Mitty's mind, and inspires him to keep going, and it's one of many films Wiig has out this year, alongside Despicable Me 2, Her and†Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. The closest thing the film has to a bad guy is Ted Hendricks, played by Adam Scott, best known for Step Brothers (2008) and Friends With Kids (2011)), who makes for a smarmy and egotistical boss, (every workplace has one), and he takes part in a brilliant part of one of Walter's fantasies involving a Stretch Armstrong doll. There's nice support from Shirley MacLaine as Walter's mother Edna and†Kathryn Hahn as sister Odessa, who truly understand Walter for who he is. Penn only makes a brief cameo as the elusive O'Connell, but his character has a sense of mystery about him, but a macho integrity too. There's some humourous appearances from Icelandic actor†”lafur Darri ”lafsson as a rugged helicopter pilot and†Patton Oswalt as eHarmony employee Todd Maher, who always rings Walter at very inopportune moments. Razz



It's a beautiful and wonderful fantasy, and it shows Stiller's career moving up a notch, as he'd always wanted to take on a more mature film in terms of scale since Tropic Thunder, but even though he's managing a large scale film here, he manages to have fun along the way, sending up film genres along the way, with a cheeky spoof of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) along the way. Razz† But, it shows where Stiller might be going with his career as a director, whether it be larger scale films or more serious films, for now this is the pinnacle of his directing career, and it's a role he's perfectly suited too as well. He's backed up by a great cast and crew who have joined him on this epic odyssey, and it shows that life is what you make it out to me, not how you imagine it to be. It's a great film for all the family as well, and it'll be one shown around Christmas time every year in many years from now. You'd be a fool to miss out on this film, it's a triumph of the human imagination and a celebration of the mind and courage we all have within us, and how it comes out when we least expect it, and in ways we can't even imagine.
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