Here are three things I know about Ben Stiller: he’s clever, he’s funny, he’s an accomplished director. Reality Bites, his first time at the helm, is considered a ‘cultural touchstone’ for Generation X. Zoolander was a zany and not-inaccurate riff on the male modeling world, peppered with indelible moments and quotes, such an effective skewering of the fashion world that even David “Beep-Beep” Bowie joined the fun. Tropic Thunder, which satirized male actors, upped the ante considerably: it was louder, messier, more raucous, more quotable than Zoolander. But it was still more of the same thing.
With The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Stiller has reached a certain maturity that by no means diminishes the audacity of his style; on the contrary, by making such a far-out movie on a big-studio budget — the production alone is reported at $90 million — Stiller has taken so many risks that you should call the film subversive, to the point you perhaps might declare him a fine artist. I’m in shock this film was greenlighted. Good for you, Ben. And well done studio execs for taking the risk — I hope it pays off, I really do. But if the ‘law of three’ is a film has to make back three times its budget to break even… yikes.
If we define Stiller as a fine artist, he’s certainly not a subtle one. No matter; art doesn’t need to be esoteric to be good. I don’t mean that Walter Mitty thumps you on the head like his earlier work, but the symbolism and intellectual themes are as bright and obvious as billboards in Times Square, as forthright as the text that is burned on the background in shots throughout the film. I don’t know why, but it works. Or maybe I do know why: Stiller is so utterly confident with material and its presentation that he’s palpably having a great time. So that’s a fourth thing I know about Ben Stiller: he’s fearless.
Strictly speaking, I don’t know that this film should be called an ‘adaptation’ of James Thurber’s short story of the same title (there was another starring Danny Kaye from 1947 I’ve never seen). The only similarity is the title and the hero as a daydreamer. So let’s just say the film uses Thurber’s story as a departure: Once upon a time, there was a loser named Walter Mitty who daydreamed of adventure…
Rather than Thurber’s henpecked husband, Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a single middle-aged photo editor at Life magazine. He’s actually called a “negative-asset manager,” but I’ve never heard this title used in all my years in publishing so I’m assuming it’s a joke that plays on the dehumanizing corporatization of art, one of the film’s themes. As the person responsible for handling and archiving the magazine’s negatives, Mitty must find a missing one that their star photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) has submitted as the final cover for the print version of Life. The negative is missing, so Mitty, who has never been anywhere on his life, must track down O’Connell somewhere in the dangerous wilds in which he roams via obscure clues.
The fact that no photographer of any stature can do more than offer an opinion to the art director as to what should be on the cover of a major magazine — and the art director will in turn run it by the editor-in-chief — is irrelevant, gleefully overlooked. This is Stiller’s world and you’re living in it for the next two hours. In fact, the editor-in-chief, often either an antagonist or an ally in dramas about publishing, isn’t a character at all. He is replaced by the “managing director” of the magazine’s reorganization and transition to a digital-only format, a snarky, atrociously bearded hipster in a suit played by Adam Scott.
Walter Mitty doesn’t care about these details because it’s an impressionistic dream about a daydreamer, so you shouldn’t care about them either. And the point when you think the story can’t be serious and that at some point Mitty will snap out of it and this entire adventure you are following will also turn out to be a dream is precisely the point at which you’ll find yourself relaxing into Stiller’s peculiar meta-reality. In other words, who cares if the hero is really experiencing this or not? You’re watching a movie, for Pete’s sake! Of course it’s not real.
Just because I’ve taken the rather large step of calling this a work of art doesn’t mean it’s artsy. It can’t be too obscure and weird; Stiller has to make some concessions to the studio and the budget. There is a character arc: as Mitty who works at Life gets a life and lives his adventures in ‘real life’ he daydreams less. There is a three-act structure with the sort of pat resolutions you come to expect from a Hollywood film. But Stiller underscores even that aspect with his trademark cheeky, dimpled asides: this his Hollywoodized impression of a Hollywood film about photography, life, following your dreams, daydreaming, and how the digital era has disconnected us by connecting us virtually. Stiller knows it has to be a bit hokey, so he makes the hokeyness part of his shtick. Again, it works because he slams it down on the table so confidently.
In his past movies, Stiller has relied on wit, slapstick and crackling dialogue to keep his narrative jaunty. In this film visual and verbal gags take a back seat to clever transitions, effects and simply outright gorgeous cinematography. A lot of love and effort went into shooting this paean to photography; that is another element that makes Walter Mitty meta — it celebrates the art form by being so beautiful shot itself. In shooting this fitting homage to great twentieth-century photojournalism, Stuart Dryburgh has outdone himself. He hasn’t created anything on level of Walter Mitty, or hasn’t been allowed to, in twenty years, since he upped every DP’s game with The Piano. At the very least, he will be nominated for an Oscar. If I were an AMPAS member, he would have my vote.
Even if this film has almost nothing to do with Thurber’s story, the script still has a Thurber-esque essence, that Northeastern, New Yorker-intelligent absurdist humor. You know what? It reminded me more of Kurt Vonnegut, Thurber’s spiritual heir, than it did of Thurber himself. There seems to be two kinds of writers that came out of the World War II soldier experience: absolute realists like J.D. Salinger, or sardonic surrealists like Vonnegut. Stiller has never endured more traumatic stress than a critically panned film, but he has captured the essence of some great storytellers from the Greatest Generation and successfully retooled them for a modern context.
In true Vonnegut fashion, the script lurches through different comedy styles, one moment highbrow, the next farce, then bouncing over to ironic, then hyperbolic, then parody, and then occasionally, though mercifully not often, opening up to broad and slapstick. In terms of seamlessly integrating these disparate styles, I’d say that Stiller now trumps Judd Apatow and company.
The film is a dramedy, but don’t look for any emotional payoff more than a plane taking off to Arcade Fire’s soaring “Wake Up.” The performances are strictly comedy, albeit of the hipster-ish, ironic kind. Stiller stays firmly deadpan, as does Kristen Wiig, who plays his believable love interest, as does Shirley MacLaine, who plays his mother. Indeed, MacLaine has dialed things back considerably since she went up against Maggie Smith in a scenery-chewing death match on Downton Abbey and lost. I thought that performance was so senile, never mind offensive to New Yorkers of her character’s purported ilk, that MacLaine would be forced into a nursing home soon afterwards. It appears she was just badly directed.
I’m going to believe it’s intentional that most people will understand what the missing negative is by at least the midway point of the film. That caused me the same sort of anxiety that struck me after the first few minutes: How on earth is Stiller going to pull this movie off? Maybe it is all my years in publishing, but once I’d figured out what the cover of the last issue of Life was going to be, I thought, Fuck! He’s got to reveal this at the end. How can he possibly meet expectations? But that’s just it: when Stiller does reveal the cover, he exceeds expectations. And that’s another meta aspect of the film — as a whole, Walter Mitty went above and beyond what I ever thought it could possibly be. And it was about something, about many somethings. So that’s the fifth thing I know about Ben Stiller: he’s a genius.