MOVIE REVIEW: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Again, I must apologize for putting off the last Heinlein piece another week. It can get kinda hectic around here. No excuses (not even Tax Day, which in Canada is not April 15, it’s April 30; with the Heartbleed Virus, it’s been moved to May 5, but I thought I’d better do it on time anyway.) So next week for sure. Or almost for sure, anyway, to quote John Cleese.

Pre-blog announcement: This week we learned that I, as well as a bunch of other Canadians (including my fellow Amazing blogger R. Graeme Cameron) have been nominated for the Aurora Award, the Canadian version of the Hugo. Since I’m a dual citizen (U.S. and Canada) I’m eligible for both. (I’m sneaky that way… so who’s gonna nominate me for a Hugo next year, huh?) Graeme and I are nominated in the Fan (Other) category for our Amazing Stories Online blogs. I urge all Canadian citizens, residents and Canadians living abroad—you’re all eligible—to pay your Canvention supporting fee if you can’t come to Vancouver, and vote! I will be flattered beyond belief if you vote for me, but in my less-than-humble opinon, all the candidates are worthy of winning, so vote no matter who you vote for! (Canvention, the Canadian National SF convention, is co-existent with VCON this year, and will be held in Vancouver on Oct. 3-5. You can go to the VCON website or the Aurora Awards website for more information.

Figure 1 - Thurber Seal Bark cartoon
Figure 1 – Thurber Seal Bark cartoon

On to the main course for this week. I’m sure that all of you, just like me, have daydreamed or fantasized something that couldn’t possibly happen—hey, that’s why we call it “fantasy,” right?—in your life. That big promotion you might get, the lottery win that’s just around the corner, the guy or girl you’ve admired from afar getting close to you; owning the flying, intelligent vehicle “Gay Deceiver” from Robert A. Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast. Yes, we’ve all done it. Well, in 1939, James Thurber, who was becoming one of America’s best-known cartoonists—not because of his style (mostly) or his sense of humour—it was kind of a combination of both; anyway, Thurber wrote a story about the daydreamer in all of us, called “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” (If you want to know more about James Thurber, I suggest starting with the book My World—And Welcome To It*, available from Amazon in both print and e-editions.) Here’s a well-known cartoon by Thurber who, by the way, was blind in one eye and couldn’t (as my dad used to joke) see well out of the other, which is why his drawings were somewhat erratic. Anyway, he created the character of Walter Mitty, a middle-aged henpecked man who constantly escaped reality by taking elements of his surroundings or things someone (usually his wife) said to him and creating short-lived fantasy worlds. The original story was under 4 pages long, but it immediately struck a chord within the hearts of the American public (and, one assumes, the New Yorker-reading Canadian public). The salient feature of the story, besides the quickly-sketched characters of Mitty and his wife, was the sound effect “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa,” which could be, depending on Mitty’s daydream, a Naval Hydroplane, a WWI flamethrower or an anaesthetic machine’s faulty piston. Slightly out of touch with the real world, Mitty is a nebbish picked on by his wife, cops, parking attendants and desk clerks; it appeared the reading public could relate.

Figure 2 - Danny Kaye as Mitty, daydreaming
Figure 2 – Danny Kaye as Mitty, daydreaming

A few years later, Samuel Goldwyn (grandfather to the present-day Goldwyn) had recently signed one-time “Borscht Belt” comedian Danny Kaye to a movie contract, and a script was quickly produced that highlighted Kaye’s strengths, which included the ability to sing long multi-syllabic songs and act silly. The script included some of Kaye’s already-well-known routines, like “Anatole of Paris”; it discarded just about everything from the story except the daydreams and the “ta-pocketa-pocketa” sound effect. Although Thurber is reputed to have hated the movie, it was a box-office success. Years passed, and filmmakers began looking for new projects to remake. (Yes, that was sarcasm. The studios appear to have limited imaginations at times, and would prefer, I think, to use a property that had proved out, in hopes that it would retain some cachet from its previous incarnation.) According to Goldwyn’s grandson, the script/story by Steve Conrad fit the bill; in the Extras, Goldwyn says they’d looked at a number of scripts and story treatments but none were suitable until they saw Conrad’s. Ben Stiller came on board to star and direct; and the project was off and running. The script was updated because, according to what I’ve read—period pieces don’t usually make money and—and this is my take only—as is usual with those old writers, Thurber had no idea how to make money with a movie and would have written it this way if he had. This new Walter Mitty has been updated to be a single man, 42 years old—as the movie opens we learn it’s his birthday—and working as head of the negative department at Life magazine, which in real life (ha!) more or less ceased publication—for the third time—in 2007. Except for special issues like the Beatles’ 50th anniversary that came out earlier this year.

Figure 3 - Mitty zones out in front of The Beard
Figure 3 – Mitty zones out in front of The Beard

So anyway, Mitty lives alone in New York City, commuting by train to his job, where he “hasn’t lost a negative” in the sixteen years he’s worked there. We learn quickly, through Todd, his personal contact (Patton Oswalt), that he’s unable to post a complete profile on eHarmony because he’s never “been anywhere or done anything”; and he learns on his 42nd birthday that Life has been bought and will be transitioning to an online-only magazine, which means major layoffs. We meet his wannabe actress sister Odessa (Kathryn Hahn), and the “Transition Manager” Ted (“The Beard”) Hendricks (Adam Scott) who immediately picks up on Walter’s daydreaming and begins mocking him. Walter also finds out that Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn)—a legendary cover photographer–has sent him what Ted “The Beard” Hendricks says is a cover photo that captures “the quintessence of life,” although Ted has no idea what “quintessence” means. All he knows is that the higher-ups want negative number 25 for the cover, and Walter has to produce it. There’s a problem here: although Sean—who respects Walter as the only guy at Life who does justice to his photos—has sent Walter a canister of negatives, and a birthday present of an embossed leather wallet, negative 25 is nowhere to be found. Walter’s assistant Hernando (Adrian Martinez) is in the process of tearing the entire negative storage area apart to try to find 25—although he and Walter (never “Walt”) determine that there might be clues as to what 25 is, and where Sean is, from negatives 23, 24 and 27. Most of the rest of the negatives are damaged and useless. Walter makes enlargements of the three prints to help him decipher where Sean might be, and he’s helped in this by a young woman he’s interested in—Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) who works in another department. Because Sean doesn’t carry a cell phone and moves around a lot, Walter decides the only way to save his job and find “the last cover” is to track him down; he and Cheryl discover there’s a ship’s name in one of the three pictures and it’s based in Greenland. (One of the fun things the film does is produce fake Life covers that look real; they’re in the inimitable Life style and probably should have been covers!)

Figure 4 - Fake Life Cover with Marilyn Monroe
Figure 4 – Fake Life Cover with Marilyn Monroe

So Walter, doing something real for the first time in his life, heads for Greenland to track down Sean. And here’s where the movie makes it clear that this isn’t your father’s or grandfather’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty; in the story and the previous movie, Walter Mitty is a dreamer, a person who never did anything of note and can’t really do anything now. Stiller’s Mitty is different; we learn that in his youth—before his father died and he had to get a job at Papa John’s pizza place—he was a skateboard expert; he shows Cheryl’s teenaged son (she’s separated on her way to a divorce) a few skateboard tricks; and he apparently thinks nothing of hopping on an airplane to Greenland, thence to a helicopter, a fishing vessel and on to Iceland for the next leg of the journey. Along the way we’ve learned that his sister is very self-involved and his mother (played well—as always—by Shirley MacLaine) is just starting in a retirement home but needs to move to a bigger apartment because of the piano Walter’s father gave her when they were first married. Everything Walter does depletes his bank balance; you see him paying for a lot of things, but eventually this all goes for nothing—it’s a loose end that never gets tied up, and you wonder why they even brought it up. I won’t go into detail about the rest of the movie, because of my dislike of spoilers, even for a movie that switches—in mid-stream—from a comedy to a “feel-good” movie. All the elements I’ve mentioned here come into play, however. I will tell you this: that the ending totally belies the beginning, and this movie—while quite watchable for several reasons—never really captures the spirit of Thurber’s Walter Mitty. They even disposed of the “ta-pocketa-pocketa” sound effect, which even Danny Kaye’s movie kept. And they do explain the “MacGuffin,” which is negative 25.

Figure 5 - Fake Senator Kennedy Life Cover
Figure 5 – Fake Senator Kennedy Life Cover

Did I dislike the movie? No, not at all. I kind of liked what it turned into. It had a few clever spots, and Stiller gives a reasonably subdued performance. If you’re expecting something like Zoolander or Tropic Thunder-type performances from him, you will be disappointed. Even though Walter does learn something about how different real life is from fantasy, and how—more or less—to quit zoning out (something the original, short-story Walter never learned), he’s not really a character who grabs you. For my money, the best actors—in order of appearance (and here I’m only talking about the name actors) were Sean Penn, Shirley MacLaine and Patton Oswalt. With Kristen Wiig running close behind. I felt not much more sympathy for Walter at the end than I did at the beginning, really. The real star of this movie was the cinematographer (Stuart Dryburgh); almost every shot (and he took full advantage, once we left New York) of the wide-screen format of modern film) looked like a Life magazine cover or center spread. There are special-effects shots I can’t talk about for fear of spoilers, but the camera work is spectacular, from a reddish-orange moon over a purple Greenland (or Iceland; I’ve forgotten which one) landscape, to some spectacular photography high in the Himalayas. (I won’t tell you more about that.) I don’t know what parts were green-screen, but the photography was, more often than not, not only gorgeous, but composed the way Life used to do it. Special mention should be given to the bit players in Iceland, Greenland and the Himalayas: they were all ethnics—natives, it appears, of the area. The Sherpas were real Sherpas, the others all had the proper names, so it appears the film company hired locally on location. I think that’s wonderful. To sum up, this isn’t The Secret Life of Walter Mitty as you’ve seen (or read) it before; it turns from a witty comedy to a somewhat predictably-ended “feel good” movie; the cinematography makes up for the lack. I might have been happier, though, had they chosen to call it something else. I’ll leave you with a Life magazine-type shot of Walter playing football with the Sherpas.

Figure 5 - Mitty with Sherpas
Figure 5 – Mitty with Sherpas

If you want to comment on this week’s blog entry, comment here, if you’ve registered—it’s free, and only takes a moment—or comment on my Facebook page; or in the several groups where I publish a link. All your comments—positive or not—are welcome! (I may explain myself or disagree with your comments, though. Feel free to disagree; my opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners. I prefer a dialogue, so jump right in! See you next week!

(Editor’s Note:  Also a short-lived television show featuring William Windom.  At least one episode can be viewed on Youtube)

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