Fantasy, so it goes, is the way that we cope with the truths of our day-to-day existence by placing an ideal in the place of what we wake up to. It's why the total of any civilization is not so much in its size or conquest, but the volume and quality of the art it leaves behind. As coping mechanisms go, it's a goal for the creator, and an ongoing struggle for the rest of us. The greatest artists understand this lack, and capture that lack which fuels the images we escape to daily.
Escape has been on my mind a lot these last few months, and I've found my dreams becoming more vivid as various pains compiled in my body. Before I saw the trailer for Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I was living it - struggling to get out of bed and do work that didn't fulfill me anymore and dreaming of my eventual escape. Then I saw those first crisp images, Stiller's careful gaze over the hazards of work and love, and that beautiful explosion of color as he skateboards down an endless ramp. If I wasn't able to love my reality, it looked like Stiller was creating a film that let me know I wasn't alone.
Now that the lights have come back up and Walter Mitty's reality has left the screen I'm alone with my thoughts again. Stiller's Secret Life is the product of someone who really believes in the power of escape through art. The question, then, is whether Stiller created a story that really illuminates a new aspect of our lives or a vanity project based on one of the most beloved short stories of all time. Unfortunately, the answer is vacillating somewhere between those two answers. When it works, I smiled warmly with the fuel of Mitty's quiet steps forward. As the reverse occurs I find my interest slipping away because I'm not watching a story unfold in Mitty's mind, but Stiller's.
This seemed a perfect fit because, behind the nervous nice-guy roles that brought him mega box office success, Stiller can be very reserved. Walter Mitty (Stiller) is a nice, cautious, and hardworking man who balances his checkbook by pen and can barely rouse up enough courage to send electronic greetings to the girl he adores (Kristen Wiig). As a way of coping with his insecurity, he imagines himself conquering mountains and getting into epic fights that need the aid of a substantial special effects budget. Because he escapes into fantasies so much he attracts the ire of his new boss (Adam Scott), worry of his mother (Shirley Maclaine), and encouragement from a photographer he's never met (Sean Penn).
The many escapes into fantasy are what drive the short story and the first leg of the movie - a careful balance in the former, and an awkward tonal shift in the second. Aside from Walter's fantasy where he is a mountain climber the other sequences, filled with gravity-defying fight scenes and explosions, seem like leftovers from Tropic Thunder, not the mental wanderings of a lovestruck man. The most bizarre is an extended riff on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, itself a good short story turned into disappointing feature film, where the tiny aged body of Stiller rambles on before the fantasy comes to a merciful end.
I wondered if this was part of the film's strategy by making the fantasy sequences so off-putting that the eventual transition into reality would be a welcome change of pace. But as the second third of the film kicks off with Mitty's cross-world search for his photographer friend the fantasy sequences are replaced with scenes where a small joke is repeated seven or eight times with no change. The idea that our fantasies and realities are both repetitious cycles of the same themes is a depressing one and doesn't mesh well with the many positive turns that Mitty's life takes. It seems a subtle critique on how dreams are silly and necessary, but just ends up another fantasy tract about how abandoning consumption and pursuing that lofty goal is what's best.
While I admire the directions the film tries to pull itself in, the twists leave Wiig's performance at a confusing crossroads. She is little more than an idea to Mitty and Wiig never gets to do much besides bite her lip and stop awkwardly in the middle of sentences. Wiig's charms are still lost on me but she's done little favors by a script that positions her somewhere in-between the vast gulf of male audience wish-fulfillment and an independent character capable of finding some genuine interest in Mitty. Her character is both a criticism of the way female leads fall into the male's arms and a shining example of it - failing at both by being uncommitted to either.
Disappointments aside, when Secret Life moves with confidence it stirs me greatly. The lack of confidence in the structure and visuals does not apply to the photography, which is at times gorgeous. The strong lines, cool backdrops, and contained palettes of Mitty's office existence eventually gives way to a free-fall plunge of cascading colors and vaguely defined spaces as he finally learns to live again. Stiller, when he's not putting Mitty through a dream filter, is also very disarming as Mitty, leading us to think that he's forgotten how to live when really he just needs a reminder on how to communicate.
It's sad, then, that I ended up in such a muddled state when it comes to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. When it moves with confidence it's easy to see how, if it had committed more either to the drama or to the comedy, that it would have worked better as either. Instead it sits, patiently regarding the cliché of self-help and travel being the road to happiness, but still telling us about that trip to Iceland anyway.
Directed by Ben Stiller.
Screenplay written by Steve Conrad.
Starring Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig.