Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (20th Century-Fox, TSG Entertainment, Samuel Goldwyn Films, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a title legendary in the annals of short-story writing because it was written by James Thurber and was an instant hit when it was first published in The New Yorker on March 18, 1939. The Wikipedia page on the story summarizes it thusly: “The short story deals with a vague and mild-mannered man who drives into Waterbury, Connecticut, with his wife for their regular weekly shopping and his wife's visit to the beauty parlor. During this time he has five heroic daydream episodes. The first is as a pilot of a U.S. Navy flying boat in a storm, then he is a magnificent surgeon performing a one-of-a-kind surgery, then as a deadly assassin testifying in a courtroom, and then as a Royal Air Force pilot volunteering for a daring, secret suicide mission to bomb an ammunition dump. As the story ends, Mitty imagines himself facing a firing squad, ‘inscrutable to the last.’” The story became legendary not only for its basic concept — a milquetoast middle-aged man with a nagging wife and a nothing job fulfills himself in his daydreams, in which he fantasizes himself as a great hero — but also for the onomatopoeic device Thurber used of having various machines in Mitty’s daydreams make the sound “ta-pocketa-pocketa” (or, in one case, “ta-pocketa-pocketa-queep” when the machine is about to break down before Mitty keeps it going by jamming his ballpoint pen into it). The story was a big enough hit to attract the attention of Hollywood — in this case, producer Sam Goldwyn, who bought the film rights and in 1947 turned it into a vehicle for Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo and Boris Karloff, but Goldwyn and the people he put on the project, director Norman Z. McLeod and writers Ken Englund, Everett Freeman and an uncredited Philip Rapp, made a basic change in the material: in their version Mitty (young and unmarried instead of middle-aged and hitched as in Thurber’s story) meets a “mystery woman” and gets involved in a real-life intrigue as wild and fantastic as anything he’s ever daydreamed about. The 2013 version of Mitty was a co-production between what was left of Goldwyn’s company by then and 20th-Century Fox, along with something called “TSG Entertainment,” after previous attempts to set up a modern remake at Paramount fell through. It starred Ben Stiller, who also directed, and was clearly an attempt on his part to do a quieter, more subtle sort of comedy and transform his image the way Will Ferrell had with the masterpiece Stranger Than Fiction (2006), and while hardly as good as Stranger Than Fiction it’s a nicely entertaining film even though it’s more wryly amusing than laugh-out-loud funny.

Like the 1947 version, the 2013 Mitty makes Walter Mitty an employee of a publishing house (Thurber didn’t specify exactly what Mitty did for a living except it was a white-collar job in an office and was excruciatingly boring), only while in 1947 Mitty worked as a proofreader for a pulp-fiction publisher, in 2013 he worked in the Time & Life building for Life magazine — and in the opening scenes an officious asshole named Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott with a gravity-defying hairdo) announces that Life has just been “acquired” — he doesn’t say by whom — and within a month will be publishing its last print edition, after which it will only be a Web site: “Life online.” Mitty works as a “negative assets manager,” which sounds like an accountant who chronicles how much money the enterprise is losing but turns out to mean “negative” as in photography — he literally keeps track of the negatives of all the photos Life has run or is considering. He’s had a long correspondence relationship with the legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn and, I suspect, deliberately given the same first name as the actor), who trusts him with his negatives more than he does anyone else in the enterprise even though the two have never met, and the plot gets underway when Mitty’s department receives a roll of developed but unprinted negatives from O’Connell, wherever he happens to be in the world, only the one O’Connell says is the best of the lot, the “quintessence” of his work (a word Ted Hendricks has never heard before and, when someone tries to explain to him what it means, he hilariously mangles it), number 25, is missing from the negative roll. Without authorization or a travel budget, Mitty sets out across the world to find O’Connell, with the help of the woman at Life with whom he’s in unrequited love, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), who helps him interpret mysterious clues O’Connell has left on a wrapper of Clementine cake (I’d never heard of it before but it’s apparently Mitty’s favorite sort of cake, regularly baked for him by his mom — played by Shirley MacLaine, of all people) that leads him to Greenland, Iceland (where Mitty and his guide drive through a huge smoke cloud sent up by a volcano in the process of erupting) and the Himalayas (where Mitty finally finds O’Connell taking a photo of the elusive snow leopard — or, rather, not taking it, since like a true Sean Penn character O’Connell decides not to spoil the moment by photographing it). O’Connell has also sent Mitty a wallet embossed with the motto Henry Luce wrote for Life magazine when he founded it in 1936: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of Life.” We get about an hour before anyone in the film does that O’Connell has concealed negative #25 in the wallet, but Mitty carries the damned thing around with him for half the world (including dunking it in the Pacific Ocean when he leaps from a helicopter into the water so he can be picked up by a ship O’Connell may be on … but isn’t) and then casually throws it away in his mom’s trash can — though mom saves the day by retrieving it from the trash (Mater ex machina) and the photo turns out to be one of Mitty himself.

Also in the cast is Tim Naughton (Jon Daly), who works the tech support line at the e-Harmony dating service where Mitty has posted a profile and paid the $500 fee but hasn’t been able to attract any “winks” — e-Harmony’s version of a “like” on Facebook, I guess (I haven’t had to use it and fortunately one of the nice things about Charles and I having been together as long as we have — nearly 20 years — is that neither of us have had to deal with the perils and frustrations of Internet dating) — while his own computer or e-Harmony’s software or whatever have blocked him from posting a “wink” on Cheryl’s. Tim and Mitty talk by phone all across the world, including all those remote places Mitty goes to search for O’Connell, yet Mitty’s cell phone continues to work for weeks on end even though he’s in locations without electrical power and therefore has no way to recharge it. (Mitty is fired from his job midway through the movie and he wasn’t making much to begin with, and writer Conrad never bothers to tell us how he finances his trip[1] any more than he bothers to tell us how Mitty keeps his phone charged — indeed, these plot holes were so blatant and annoying I was waiting for a Seven Keys to Baldpate-style payoff in which the entire movie would turn out to be just another one of Mitty’s daydreams.) Though I had some disaffections with it, all in all I liked The Secret Life of Walter Mitty — though it didn’t do justice to the original Thurber tale any more than the 1947 version had (but then I don’t think a mere movie could do justice to the story — the individual incidents Thurber described are all filmable but the totality of what he was writing about would fall apart if his story were filmed come scritto), on its own it was a lovely film, quietly and unobtrusively funny (a surprise from a film talent as notorious for pushing the bad-taste envelope as Ben Stiller), with a fascinating “take” on corporate America and an unexpected (maybe not that unexpected, given the anti-globalization satire Stiller and his collaborators worked into Zoolander) social comment about how people’s jobs are determined by machinations among giant corporations thousands of miles away and therefore just because you’re doing your job satisfactorily, or even superlatively, well today doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll still have it tomorrow. And for all Stiller’s reputation as a zany, envelope-pushing comedian, he’s quite restrained (and therefore, at least to me, more funny) here than usual, and both he and Kristen Wiig are more appropriate casting than Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo were 66 years earlier!

[1] — Actually, Charles reminded me that we’re shown shots of Mitty’s bankbook which indicates he has at least $3,000 saved up even after his trip to Greenland, so I guess we’re supposed to believe he was financing his trip with his savings. He also pointed out that Mitty’s mom described him as the “worker bee” and his sister Odessa (Kathryn Hahn), who’s pursuing a career as an actress, her “performance-art bee.”