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Posts Tagged ‘James Thurber’

Ah, a new year is upon us, bringing with it the usual abrupt shift in the type of films going on general release: from glittering festive spectaculars with no ulterior motive beyond simply luring in an audience, to more thoughtful, high-minded pieces made with half an eye on the Academy Award shortlist. It is, as I’m sure I’ve said before, the multiplex’s answer to a January detox, and I sometimes find it a little hard to cope with – could they not spread these films out just a bit more?

Oh well, such is life. One of the first off the blocks this year is Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by Ben Stiller, produced by Ben Stiller, and starring Ben Stiller too. Well, that’s one way of keeping the budget down. Something about the trailer for this film, the first time I saw it, really put me off: it looked terribly twee and a little bit hackneyed, with the secret of finding happiness in a humdrum life promised by a gaggle of multi-millionaire film industry creative types. However, a close family member fancied going to the cinema, but wasn’t keen on the Mandela movie, so off we went to see it anyway (I will, as regular readers know, turn up to almost anything, especially¬†if someone else is buying the ticket).

mitty

Stiller plays the eponymous character, a reserved everyman working in the photo archive of Life magazine. His true nature, which is that of an adventurous romantic, only finds expression through his rich and bewildering fantasy life – even if this does threaten to give him a reputation as a chronic daydreamer amongst those who know him. One of his most meaningful relationships is with a photojournalist (Sean Penn) whom he has never actually met. He certainly seems to have no realistic prospect of getting with a co-worker he quietly bears a torch for (played by Kristen Wiig – the co-worker, not the torch).

Then the magazine is bought out by a gaggle of bearded, suited nincompoops who announce the physical edition of the periodical is to be discontinued. The cover of the special last issue is to be a photograph specially taken by Penn’s character, and entrusted to Walter’s care – but he can’t find it anywhere! If he is to meet his obligation to the magazine, Walter is going to have to track his friend down and find out where the missing negative is…

This is based on a famous short story by James Thurber, although I suspect not a great deal of the original has survived. One of the things that gives the lie to my attempts to seem properly cultured is that there are many celebrated literary figures like Thurber with whom I am barely familiar – this case being particularly inexcusable, as Thurber short stories are always popping up in the books I constantly use at work. A Thurber admirer would probably have their own view of Stiller’s movie, but I have to say I very much enjoyed it in the end.

On paper it does look like a by-the-numbers, carpe diem, live your dreams piece of fluff – but it is lifted well above this level by some beautiful photography, inventive direction, and a cleverly reserved and slightly off-beat script. This is considerably less broad than most of the films I have seen from Ben Stiller, and much more to my taste. The more spectacular excursions into Walter’s dream-life are very funny, but to begin with the real world of the film exists at a slight angle to reality too – there’s an odd but subtle formalism to the designs and some of the dialogue that helps to smooth the joins between fantasy and reality. As Walter becomes more rooted in the real world, this diminishes somewhat – and it’s to Stiller’s credit that this is done with such great subtlety.

The transformation of Walter Mitty from, essentially, a ‘grey piece of paper’ to an inspirational, aspirational hero is perhaps not done with quite the same level of nuance – we are tipped off to the kind of person he was in his youth very early on – but this was always going to be a difficult balancing act. Personally, I liked the film very much – but then the story of a man escaping from the confines of a dispiriting office job and going on a series of surreal international adventures was always going to chime with me in a very particular way.

I think this is a good film, though it is arguably quite old-fashioned – the central message of going out and experiencing the world first-hand, rather than living in daydreams or cocooning yourself in management-speak and only communicating via the internet, is arguably nothing very new or surprising. Nevertheless it still seems to me to have some validity to it, and I did find the film bringing back a lot of memories and even stirring up just a little of my own spirit of adventure. I understand it has received mixed reviews, which rather surprises me. As of now, this is the best new film I have seen in 2014. This is not saying much, but I suspect it has a good chance of still being near the top of the list in twelve months’ time – and that is noteworthy. A very thoughtful and wise movie; entertaining, too.

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