Saturday, December 28, 2013

"Do I dare?" The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty starts out as a quiet, somewhat melancholy portrait of an inert, solitary J. Alfred Prufrock for our time who is unable to connect very well with other human beings even by means of social media. As the "Negative Assets" manager for Life Magazine - which has been doomed by the Internet to its last issue - Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) has been entrusted with "Negative 25" for the magazine's final cover photograph taken by the magazine's elusive star photographer Sean O'Connell, but Walter can't seem to find the negative.

Ben Stiller is excellent as the nearly autistic Walter who tries connecting with a female co-worker, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), on a dating website before he dares to speak to her in person at the office. Ben Stiller's Walter Mitty is an emotionally paralyzed daydreamer who only finds freedom in elaborate self-aggrandizing fantasies that disconnect him even further from the real world. Sometimes the film's digressions into a daydream are jarring. At other times, they are humorous and say a lot about Walter. In a pivotal moment, Cheryl sings along with David Bowie's "Space Oddity" to spur him to risk leaping into a helicopter with a drunk pilot - the only way to get him from a nowhere town in Greenland to his next step toward locating Sean O'Connell.

I like how the film turns into an epic outdoor adventure when Walter resolves to embark on a quest to find Negative 25, even if it means traveling halfway around the world. Walter's triumph is that he finally dares to dare. Encouraged by Cheryl and beckoned by the enigmatic Sean O'Connell, Walter embarks on a whimsical journey of self-discovery that takes him from Greenland to Iceland to Afghanistan. Little by little, Walter grows. He gains confidence and a rugged appearance. We follow him through quirky moments in a Greenland karaoke bar, aboard a rusty old fishing vessel crewed by Chileans, in a Papa John's in Iceland, and in LAX discussing life over a Cinnabon with the manager of a social media site. Realistically, Walter doesn't suddenly become a the rugged hero of one of his daydreams. He still retains some of physical and social awkwardness even after he scales a mountain alone to find O'Connell. In the film's best moment, Sean Penn as O'Connell draws Walter Mitty's attention to a snow leopard and O'Connell exhorts Walter to savor the moment. "It's right there. It's right here."

The film has its flaws - especially when one of Walter's fantasies becomes a CGI superhero sequence, which afforded delight only because I had seen part of it filmed in New York City - but, for the most part, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty kept me engaged and thinking with its notable cinematography of rugged locations and its touching exploration of the importance of seeing the world, seizing the day, and cherishing each moment of one's life.

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