Monday, 23 December 2013

The Secret Life of Ben Stiller




Contains a hell of a lot of spoilers, including the end, but personally I don't think it's the kind of film that has spoilers or can be spoiled. It's up to you though

When I first discovered that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was a 1947 film starring Danny Kaye, which was only shortly before I went to see the current version of the film starring Ben Stiller, I was a little bit worried. After all Danny Kaye is a legend and Ben Stiller... Well... He is the guy who nailed that last nail on the coffin of my respect for Robert De Niro’s acting career. 

Unlike most, I find the Blue Steel and Magnum looks of Derek Zoolander, like many of Stiller’s other characters, a poor imitation of Jim Carrey, whose talent is much closer to Kaye’s league. Unsurprisingly, Carrey was considered for the role of new Walter Mitty in the past. It is rare that Ben Stiller tones down his acting a little and plays a more subtle and gentle character, like Tug Speedman in the excellent Tropic Thunder which he also directed, but when he does he is delightful to watch, still not in the same level as Carrey, but much better than his usual self. 

Not wanting to have any preconception about Walter Mitty and his secret life, I decided to watch the Danny Kaye film only after I saw the current one, the trailer for which looked most promising.

Based on the short story by James Thurber rather than the old film and quite befittingly, the updated version of Walter Mitty (Stiller) works in the negative assets department of LIFE magazine. While he daydreams of heroism and romance with his co-worker, Cheryl Melhoff (Kirsten Wiig), in reality his job and hers are in danger following the cuts as LIFE magazine goes online. For the perfect last cover, Walter is trusted with a frame by old-school-wow-factor photographer and adventurer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Conory), but when the all-important frame gets lost, it is time for Walter to take action.

While Danny Kay’s film is a wonderful Hitchcockian comedy, in which Walter Mitty stumbles into adventure, the Ben Stiller film is a more lyrical, life affirming drama in which Mitty takes action into his own hands. If anything, this version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty reminds me more of Paul Anderson's superb film Punch Drunk Love, starring yet another more talented actor from Stiller's generation, Adam Sandler. Of course, the films are completely different, but I was reminded of the Anderson films because both films have a strong visual sense, in Anderson's film supported by excellent soundtrack too, which illustrates the main character's internal world. In addition both films showcase a unique character that is non-typical to the actor portraying them and exposes another side, in Stiller's case a better side, to the one we're used to seeing them in.

Perhaps what impressed me most about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, is how captivating it was and without Stiller’s regular enforcement ensemble, usually made of better actors than him (Dodgball and Tropic Thunder I’m looking at you, yes I’m also nodding at your direction Zoolander...). Not this time. Here, Stiller cannot rely on anyone else and he finally shows the kind of sincerity and tenderness that were missing from his previous acting and which allows him to carry the film on his own and become a compelling and loveable lead rather than the annoying side character one has to endure to enjoy Vince Vaughn or Owen Wilson. Even in his extreme daydream, which could have been the natural place for Stiller to go back to his old tricks and he did get close to it in his Benjamin Button type of dream, but it was so random, weird and funny that I had to love it. However, mostly Stiller maintains a poised and gentle character in his Walter Mitty and for the first time I could say not only that I loved a film he was in, but that I actually loved Ben Stiller in it. Not that the rest of cast weren’t excellent, particularly the fantastic Adam Scott as the vexing Ted Hendrciks, “manager of the transition”, but in the end this is Ben Stiller’s film and he owns it.

With the help of Director of Photography, Stuart Dryburgh and Production Designer, Jeff Mann and with great sensitivity, Ben Stiller creates a beautiful world, which stretches both reality and the imagination. Echoing the visual signature of LIFE magazine, the film’s visuality (come on someone must make this a word already), in glorious 2D, is enchanting and it reinforces the photojournalism look and feel associated with “LIFE”, appropriately chosen as Mitty's workplace for its name, but also for its known visual style and images. The choice of an old school film negative adds a romantic quality as well as give it a reflective element. The film is so stunningly beautiful and immersive that I blurted out an incredibly girly scream at a crucial moment despite knowing what was coming. I’m pretty sure I won’t be invited to the next “cool film critics club”, but it serves as a proof that the power of great visuality is greater than that of an extra, non-existing. dimensions.

If there is one complaint I would make about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty it would be about its ending. Unlike in the Danny Kaye film, here I didn’t want Walter to get the girl. I felt it was more important that he found happiness, confidence, came out victorious at his workplace and of course met Todd and in a way getting the girl at the end almost took away from the impact of all that has changed in him. At least that’s how I felt to begin with, as I finished watching, but as time passed I found that the happy romance feels right after all, it is true to the character and true to the film. 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens on Boxing Day
Rated: PG
Running time: 114mins
Based on a story by: Thruber
Screenplay: Steve Conrad 
Director: Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kirsten Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn

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