Saturday, August 2, 2014

REVIEW: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

To be clear. I respect Ben Stiller as a writer, director, actor, filmmaker and comedian. Zoolander and Tropic Thunder were two of the funniest movies of all time -- let alone the stuff he did on The Ben Stiller Show. Audiences laugh. Critics laugh. But, for some reason, Stiller doesn't get the street cred of a Woody Allen or a Paul Mazursky. Nobody seems to take him seriously as a comedic director. I take him seriously, damnit. Clear?
But ...
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was a misfire.
Stiller violated an obvious, inviolable rule.
The rule being: Dance with the one that brung ya.
In this case, James Thurber.
Thurber's original short story was the tale of a nebbish who periodically zoned out into heroic action-adventure fantasies, punctuated by the sound of "tapocketa-tapocketa." The contrast between Mitty's nebbish life and heroic daydreams was the joke. The whole damn point.
Stiller had the bright idea -- Hey, let's do a character turn! Let's take Walter Mitty out of the realm of mental masturbation and make him a man of action! Fine. Great idea.
But, first, you still have to give me Walter Mitty.
The Walter Mitty of Thurber's short story.
That guy.
Stiller didn't.
Stiller offers a few throwaway dream sequences -- but not enough. He loses the texture of Thurber's original. The feel of it. The joke.
Instead of the simple joke, Stiller sets up an elaborate premise in which Mitty coordinates photographic negatives at Life magazine during its last days before digital disruption. Somehow or other, the heroic figure of Sean Penn forces Mitty out of fantasy into reality. Fine, fine, fine. Take the source material and go anywhere you want with it.
But give me the source material first.
Give me the core 2,083 words of Thurber's original story (transposed to the 21st century) before jumping off into your tangential story.
Dance with the one that brung ya.
Sadly, Stiller didn't.
If you can get over that, it's a decent movie once it gets going.
Still, I fantasize about the movie it could've been ...

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