The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – Alternative Review

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – Alternative Review"

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This is probably the most excited I’ve been to see a film since ‘The Iceman’ earlier in the year. In a release period with huge films such as The Hobbit, American Hustle and such forth, this was the film I cared about most. Ever since I saw the trailer back in October, I was captivated by the potential. The trailer portrayed an artistic film with a wonderfully unique visual style, blending a melancholy naturalism with with colourful, comic extravagance as it told the story of a daydreamer caught in a humble routine, juxtaposing the world of reality with the world of imagination. The tone of the trailer had me clawing at the calendar, counting down the days until my eyes could be united with the cinema screen to feast on the visual delights proposed by the fabulous trailer. As wonderful as it is to be excited about a film, I try to keep my affections measured because so that I don’t let my mind fashion the movie I want it to be and get let down by the reality of what it is. Because that just isn’t fair on the film. Anyway. Boxing Day, 26th December was a date I had marked down for months and when it finally came around, I was buzzing. But my excitement almost turned to tears as the Cinema was forcibly closed due to flooding (see previous blog post for photographic evidence). Luckily, it reopened later that evening after the last dregs of water were suckled away by the lovely staff determined to let me see this movie…and take my money. The carpet was squelchy and the air was damp, but I didn’t care because I was about to witness Walter.

As always, the following isn’t going to be a plot summary or any rounded account of the film, there are far more, far better reviews out there which do that and I’m not attempting to compete with them. I’m just going to pick out some observations about the movie which may otherwise go unsaid or seldom be discussed. But remember, agree or disagree, never let my thoughts prevent you from seeing a movie and coming up with your own. 

A Lack of Imagination | I was really hopeful that more of the movie would have the juxtaposition between real and imagined as set about by the trailer but in reality, there weren’t many more and they didn’t really top those shown. I wanted bigger, better, funnier and more exciting but I didn’t get it. Fundamentally, I enjoyed the movie, but I don’t think that it’s the movie the trailer made it out to be too stylistically different than to how it was. There were too many middle of the road shots, which I totally understand as the film wanted to show Walter’s regular life and save the visual delights for the daydreams, however, the opening 5-10 minutes were so loaded with precision framing which just trailed off after a while. I would have liked to see a bolder shot choice and from a more specialised palette. A more Wes Anderson-esque flat, asymmetric style with negative space thrown in is the kind of vibe I thought would be prominent throughout the film but it was all quite safe and not quite artistic enough. I’m the first to admit that a large part the delight I take from cinema is from compositions and other such visual elements, however, I also know that a movie doesn’t need a distinct artistic style to be good and captivating stories and good performances take priority. So don’t think I’m letting my taste dictate my view here, rather, I want to say that the trailer was so heavily weighted on a certain type of shot selection, it created an expectation for a certain style, a style which the film ultimately didn’t have. Not enough imagination sequences and very conventional shot choices despite heavily implying otherwise was a big disappointment for me.

The film’s message was about living in the present tense and as Walter starts living a fuller life, his daydreams decrease. Walter’s real life takes the place of the daydreams, however, I think it’s done in quite an unbalanced way the daydreams stop too abruptly as they are weighed far more to the first half hour of the movie. I’m no psychoanalyst, but as a filmmaker, I think the substitution should have been more gradual with daydreams still occurring even on his travels, but to a lesser extent, maybe to the point where the audience were intentionally duped and asked to question what was real and what wasn’t. I think a lot more could have been done with the blurring lines and confusion and I wish it had.The trailer and posters promised so much but the style unravelled too fast. Sure, the start was meant to be more imagination heavy, and it was meant to all trail off as real life overcomes the imagination but it all happened too fast and I think it should have been way more playful. 

Backstory | I could’ve done with some more background narrative. We’re told and shown that Walter had dreams of travelling Europe as a child, dreams left unfulfilled as symbolised by the unused backpack that sits at home. These dreams were put on hold with the death of his father as he started work to try and provide for the family, or so it’s assumed. We’re shown that it’s Walter that is caring for his mother and taking care of all the finances, playing father after father has gone. But my problem is that such a beautiful gem shone from the background, and ended up being largely brushed under the carpet. I don’t like obvious stories, I love the art of the unsaid and I prefer to see and to piece together instead of being told…however, when so much is hinted at and referenced such as his past and isn’t expanded, for me shouldn’t be lauded as subtlety, but criticised as underdeveloped. I want my hints to be hints, murmurs shrouded in intrigue and mystery, not unfinished sentences cut off by a change of topic. I think the psychology of Walter is potentially fascinating but it’s only potential, I’m crying out to be told more about it and was dying for some kind of meatier discussion about it but alas, it never came. Simple characters in cinema are fine, we don’t always need elaborate backstories but, like I say, if you bring it up multiple times and decide to go a different route then I’m just gonna shoot it down as either sloppy, or frustrating. Don’t tease the audience just to throw it away, and less the throw is clearly deliberate and part of the realm of the story and not a skimming over by the writer at it’s source of the filmmakers in the edit suite. 

Actor/Director | I think Ben Stiller deserves huge plaudits with this film. Directing is hard at the best of times, especially with an intricate story like this one. Throw into the mix the fact the man pulling the strings behind the camera is also the star of the show and responsible for being the face of the movie is nothing short of amazing. The film looks like it required a lot both creatively because of the scale of the production but also physically through the performance, it must have been very difficult to balance being responsible for so much which makes every successful aspect of the film even more successful in my eyes. As a performance, I think it was weighted really well, with a melancholy disposition but in a loveable way in which the audience could will the character to succeed. The transition from daydreamer to globe trotter was gentle, unintrusive and believable, without the need for any epiphanic moments or big speeches accompanied by stirring music. That would’ve been all to easy to do, but I get the sense that Walter always was the person he ends up becoming, it just needed eeking out and I’m happy with the subtle change that occurred. Although, as I said before, I would have preferred a less abrupt halt of the daydreams. I think Stiller really owned the role and did so with a far more mellow performance than his norm, but with sprinklings of just enough ‘Ben Stiller’ in there to meet his signature style of comedy, without letting the expectations of his acting become larger than the character he was playing. That in itself is a massive success and shows a great maturity both as an actor, and also as a director to make himself do that without slipping into what’s comfortable.

If I was being really critical, I would suggest more melancholy was maybe needed to make him even more insignificant at the beginning so that his rise is even grander. Simple things like being ignored on the street, pushed around and things more outside of his work life and at a more consistent rate because it seemed like the dealings with the nasty boss and awkwardness of talking to a woman could happen to most average people. His weaknesses and silence should have been weaker, I think his strength was too close to the surface and didn’t need too much eeking out. But…that’s being very critical and could be down to my personal preference for greater distinction and contrast. 

The End | I really can’t go into the ending without spoiling the entire film, so I’m going to keep it short. The conclusion and the chronology of events which would have made it come about didn’t make sense. I spent a whole journey home from the cinema with my friend trying to figure out how what happened with the missing negative and how it was resolved (note the use of the word resolved in the context of ‘conclusion’ not necessarily in a positive way- I’m not saying whether the negative was found or lost forever). I played the role of narrative apologist and tried to explore a bunch of alternatives to make it make sense but it left too much of the story in the hands of chance within the realm of film and the characters, chance which wouldn’t have occurred given the deliberate intentions of the characters given towards the end. So, I blame not the world of Walter Mitty, but the writers. I really hope I’m wrong and that I’ve missed something obvious, but as far as I could tell, the culmination of events didn’t make sense in the chronology, given the evidence and the photographic process and other pictures on the roll. Excuse my being cryptic. If you haven’t seen it, just think about the ending when it’s done. If you can enlighten me, please please do because I hope I’m just confused and not correct. 

Imagination vs Reality | A final concluding remark would be that I liked it, but it wasn’t the film it promised to be. I don’t think that’s because I’m guilty of ascribing my own imagination and how I think it should’ve been and criticising the film for not being that- judge what’s there, not what you want to be there is my motto. I think the film is to blame because it set itself up for so much and fell short of it’s own intentions. I really like what it was trying to do and I fully support it as an ambitious and exciting way of telling a story through the disconnect between fact and fiction, but, ultimately, it didn’t follow it’s own path and faded when it should have shone. It ended up being lukewarm but nevertheless charming instead of the ambitious arthouse-style gem it wanted to be. The music, the globetrotting, the story, characters, it was all there…it just didn’t quite come off. I liked it, I’d watch it again and I applaud Ben Stiller and the style it had set out…but it fell by it’s own lofty ambitions. I fear if it had been marketed less and made to seem, dare I say it, not as artistic, it would’ve been more of a lovely surprise of a film but the marketing was almost too good for the film. I firmly believe the ideas were all there, it just didn’t come together and I don’t know if it’s the script, the direction, pressures in the editing suite or what. All I know is that it’s a tragic irony that the reality of the film didn’t match it’s own imagining. 

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