When I wrote about The Paperboy earlier this year, I talked a lot about what for me is the defining quality of a two-star film (at least under my ratings system as it was; now I have a category called “mediocre” but you could also call it a 5/10 or grade it a solid B), and this new film from Ben Stiller hits all those middling marks. There are plenty of ways in which this is not objectively a good movie (if such a critical standpoint can be said to exist), but it’s one I found fascinating in all its strangeness. Unlike The Paperboy, Walter Mitty does seem to be straining after awards credibility — which may explain its pre-Christmas release date — but at its heart it’s every bit as perplexing as the more luridly pulpy Paperboy.
For a start, there’s the fairly vacuous plot: man fears he has wasted his life, seeks to fill it. This may work in the short story format, but over a feature length it comes off as rather obvious. The titular character apparently feels there’s nothing interesting about his life as the film starts, but yet he’s standing on a subway platform in Manhattan, commuting to a job at Life magazine — his work preparing photographs for publication is actually quite fascinating (this isn’t The Office). Life is being downsized by a team led by a one-dimensional bad manager played by Adam Scott (distinguished only by a beard that makes him look like an Ancient Persian king), which swiftly brings him into conflict with Mitty. Star photographer Sean (Penn) has sent an iconic photo for the last print edition’s cover, but Mitty can’t find it and uses this as a pretext to travel the world, something he’s missed doing over the course of his life. Thus does one man seek to ‘find himself’ with all the connotations of that hollow phrase.
Then there’s the way the film presents this story and Mitty’s quest. I don’t deny that the images are at times gorgeous (shot by veteran cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh), but within the film they come across like the advertising that precedes this and so many other movies. Partly that’s the way that the kind of Tourist Board-approved aspirational imagery of untouched wildernesses is blended with that strain of modern music so beloved of advertisers, with all its lushly-produced and multi-instrumented promise of something epiphanic — the Arcade Fire being the key example here. It doesn’t really help that product placement is so front-and-centre: the framing story involves Mitty creating a profile on a prominent internet dating site, while his trip to Iceland involves him coming across a chain pizza restaurant which as far as I can tell doesn’t actually have any outlets in that country.
Maybe this stuff could be chalked up to Mitty’s persistent fantasising, but I doubt it. After all, his character’s key habit in the first third of the film is in imagining different outcomes for events he’s participating in, going off into reveries of heroism until the point that he actually does this for real. Thus, as the film progresses, one could follow a reading that his fantasies have taken on such increasingly epic proportions that he is ultimately controlling the very narrative and mise en scène of the film he’s in. In a sense, that’s true, in so far as the star of the film (playing Mitty) is its director, Ben Stiller. Certainly, none of what Mitty does as the film progresses seems particularly realistic, but the way it comes across is like one of those mood-establishing adverts for something aspirational like a luxury car, or aftershave, or visiting Iceland (pro tip: it’s probably worth visiting Iceland, but not for its American chain pizza restaurants). At one point it even turns into a pastiche of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (in which Stiller starred) for a few moments, the ultimate filmic index of stylised unreality.
The effect of all of this is to render the film fascinating to me, as if it were instead a film dramatising the creative compromises that are required to make a major Hollywood motion picture. It doesn’t hurt that the way the narrative progresses is so discursive, like a shaggy dog story or, perhaps more apropos, like a series of skits for Saturday Night Live. Mitty’s escapist fantasies, for example, could easily be stand-alone YouTube clips, and at their funniest (the hilarious parody of Benjamin Button) deserve success in this format. But elsewhere the film just feels unfocused. One moment, Mitty is in New York trying to figure out how to make the object of his affections — Cheryl, a temp played by the winning Kristen Wiig (herself an alum of SNL) — pay him some attention, and the next he’s dropping from a helicopter onto a fishing trawler, or skateboarding down the lower reaches of an active Icelandic volcano, or playing kickball in the Himalayas. And when he finally meets photographer Sean before returning to his life in the States, the film just seems to grind to a halt to take in an (admittedly enjoyable) conversation with Patton Oswalt at LAX.
That discursiveness — the film’s openness to just taking in whatever it likes the look of or thinks is funny, however obliquely it may relate to the advancement of the ostensible plot — is both the weakest element of the film and also what I found most strangely satisfying. Though I also liked all the cast members, from Ben Stiller’s salaryman (whose buttoned-down, almost straight edge, style makes him oddly believable in the subplot wherein he is a former skatepunk) to the lovely Kristen Wiig and the spiky Shirley MacLaine as Mitty’s mother. Plus there is a surprisingly generous number of laugh-out-loud moments.
I’ve tried with this review to make a case for what I liked about the film, but I’ll probably never convince either you or myself that it’s a great film or even worth watching a second time. But I enjoyed my trip with Stiller and co. that first time even if I’ll probably end up sticking with my uneventful office job.
Director Ben Stiller; Writer Sean Conrad (based on the short story by James Thurber); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 25 November 2013.