Thursday, November 13, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) ***

PG, 114 min.
Director: Ben Stiller
Writers: Steve Conrad, James Thurber (short story)
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Shirley MacLaine, Kathryn Hahn, Adrian Martinez, Patton Oswalt, Sean Penn

The Hollywood process is broken in some major places and a film like “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a perfect example of the effects of the failings of the Hollywood system. Ben Stiller’s dramedy, based on the James Thurber short story, was released during the ridiculously busy Christmas awards season last year. On any given Christmas Day each year there are 7 to 8 major releases that find their way into the metroplex. That’s more major releases than on any other weekend of the year. In a system that is do or die on that opening weekend, that doesn’t give a movie much of a chance.

In the case of “Walter Mitty”, the situation was exaggerated because of the focus on awards worthy films during that weekend each year. Christmas Day marks the final day a film can be released and have a full week run before the end of the year, thus qualifying it for the Academy Awards. As such most of the movies released that day or in the previous couple of weeks tend to be some of the studios’ best in quality, so they are the freshest in people’s minds. “Walter Mitty” was originally considered by its studio to have awards potential. That’s one of the reasons they picked the Christmas Day release day for it. The fact is, it is not an awards worthy film. Unable to distinguish itself in such a crowded season, the movie just kind of got lost in the shuffle. The problem is that although it wasn’t one of the best movies of the year, it is actually a good one.

Stiller himself plays the titular Mitty, an employee of the photo archive department at LIFE magazine prepping for its final print issue. The magazine is being taken over by an outside firm to prepare it for exclusive digital formatting. These men have little interest in the rich history of the magazine that is helped by employees like Mitty, who have been the life force of the print magazine. Mitty is an oddball, who is often caught dreaming by others. His fantasy life is one where he is a hero who runs into burning buildings to save puppies. In life, Mitty has trouble even speaking to the woman with whom he’s infatuated. When the perfect final cover photo is supposedly sent to him by a freelance photographer and doesn’t appear to be in the package the photographer sent, Mitty must go on a real heroic adventure to retrieve the negative from the elusive shutterbug.

Stiller does a good job underplaying Mitty in life when his fantasies are so bold. Some of the greatest sequences in the film happen in some Scandinavian countries with co-stars that are unknowns in the U.S. I suspect these men are probably big stars in their own countries because they have such presence in their scenes. There is a first mate on a sailing vessel and a helicopter pilot that steal some scenes that bridge the action for Mitty. There are also some nice subtleties between Stiller and his love interest, played by fellow SNL alum Kristen Wiig.

No, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is not a great movie. I deserves better than what was essentially an ill timed dump on the market that it got because of the way Hollywood overstuffs its box office for awards season. It would’ve made for a good summer sleeper. You wouldn’t think it could compete against such juggernauts as “Pacific Rim” or “Man of Steel”, but it’s the type of movie that could run away with more second place receipts than most films during a well timed summer release. Wanting that number one spot hurts more movies than it helps.

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