Although his fame derives from comedy, I don't laugh easily at Ben Stiller. His face plays the fool, but an intelligent mind ticks away inside that head, and his eyes show the tension. Normally it would be a compliment to say someone wasn't convincingly dumb, but context is everything. That intelligence proves to be an asset for his character in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, where the titular hero misses one opportunity after another to show off his value to the world. Partly because of the way Stiller comes across, we know Walter's worth and share his frustration at what the world is missing.
The relationship to the source material - James Thurbon's short story - makes up most of the film's first hour: Walter Mitty daydreams while Rome burns. The dreams reimagine Walter as a man of action and romance, and like a lot of high concept comic setpieces, most stop the story dead in its tracks. You quickly know you're in one of those moments and that nothing of consequence will happen until the dream is over. (Even the first clearly announces itself.) While the film raises intensity and varies the genres parodied by each to maintain interest, the fact that is the same beat over and over means they start to feel like commercial breaks within the more interesting story the film is building.
And there's a lot to be said for the story Steve Conrad has built around Thurbon's concept. The mechanics are familiar: a worthy nobody with confidence issues is forced out of his comfort zone into an adventurous quest, becoming a more confident man in the process. The specifics: Walter pines for Cheryl Melhof (Kristen Wiig), the 'girl-from-accounts' (a workplace version of the 'girl-next-door') whom he stalks online. A corporate acquisition brings forces of rationalisation to Life magazine. The next printed issue is announced as the last, and staff put on notice. When the moustache-twirling transition manager demands to know Walter's function, his answer - 'negative asset manager' - suggests the first of the long knives will fall on him. A missing photo, intended for the cover of the final issue by star photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), ultimately kicks Walter into action, following the trail of the missing photograph round the globe.
Walter's choice of occupation and the plot that emerges from it marks the film's nostalgia. His workspace is dominated by paper archives, hand calculators, an ally character that reveres those who shoot on film, and an internet that only seems accessible on the smartphones of others. While the film plays some of these markers of datedness for laughs, the halo around the 'Old School' - in particular the photography of Sean O'Connell and the contents of the photo at the heart of the plot - is about as earnest as it gets.
The fondness for passing media extends to Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960), to which a few gratuitous references are made. The production design borrows a few details from the older film's office set. While elevator girls are no longer credible love interests, one key scene between Walter and Cheryl around an elevator echoes one from The Apartment, and Wilder's elevator girl shows up the role of Walter's mother (Shirley Maclaine). Some less superficial links can also be found. Walter's daydreams are not as gaping a weakness as Jack Lemmon's domestic bordello, but they are the life choice that allows others to walk all over him. The platonic foundations of Walter and Cheryl's relationship feels like another point of kinship. As in the earlier film, the central couple's final moments together avoid a climactic kiss, and take place in a two shot where each, now jobless, has equal weight in the frame.
Comparisons to Wilder can't help but show up a weak heel of Stiller's film - Kristen Wiig's love interest might have a richer eHarmony profile than any other character, but she remains an accessory in a fantasy about male action, without an independent point of view. To be fair, this can be said of pretty much everyone else too. A collection of props, including a piano, an action figure, a skateboard, a slice of cake, a wallet and a photo, have more presence than much of the human cast.
Clever choices about the destination leaven the film with more nuance than all this suggests. Most of the film's reveals are true to the idea that Walter's mind is elsewhere when plot-saving exposition is spoken. When Penn - in the manner of Orson Welles' Mister Wu - walks into the halo the other characters have arranged for him, there's a unexpected dash of the clumsy but well-meaning surfer about him. (No fool, but not exactly an all knowing mystic either.) Probably the greatest irony of all is that Walter's quest was unnecessary - the product of the same jumping to conclusions that fuels his daydreams. Truth to myth form, the quest was not for nothing, since Walter's journey from inner to outer was the real goal, but the sleight of hand around the accidental 'trail of clues' helps balance the potential earnestness of the final wisdom. Finally, there's a lightness to the way the film's Rosebud - the missing photograph - is unveiled, the lack of fanfare allowing greater room for the revelation it contains.
Visual direction is strongest around the flourishes. The shift from locked-off angles of Walter in schematic New York settings to the dynamic camera that glides over mountains and skateboards down highways with him is not a new way to express a shift from inaction to action, but it's well executed.
I didn't expect to enjoy this film, but there's a lot to like here. So, given the proverbial day in the editing room, what would we tinker with here?
Return to the Cutting Room (Note: Heavy Spoilers)
- Vary the daydream beat. Cut at least a couple of the visual fantasies, probably the ones that most clearly reference other films (Spiderman, Benjamin Button). The film takes a long time to get going, and rather than each digression from reality getting longer, there's a case for increasing the economy of the beat with repetition (or not repeating it at all). One alternative: in place of the last couple of daydreams, don't venture into the fantasy with Walter, but stay outside, seeing what the world sees. We've been given enough info to imagine what's going on inside Walter by that point -- who knows, it might even give room for our investment to increase. One could even shoot it in such a way that sets up Sean Penn's pivotal photo better. Another variation worth trying - when we do daydream with him, lose more 'real time'. Rather than coming back to the conversation Walter tuned out of prior to the fantasy, come back after the other conversant has left. (This would add the effect of him missing out on more and more of life.)
- Jettison the fantasy setpieces. An extreme: never go with him into the fantasy sequences. Stay watching Stiller, and perhaps venture into his head with sound. Make the first fantasy take place not at the train station but in the location where the pivotal photo is taken. Why lose all this production value? Because there's a problem in this film, which is that when the quest does start, its easy to think that it's all an extension of his daydreaming habits. The skateboard antics similarly suffer from this doubt at first because everything outlandish up to that point has been a daydream. A second issue. The trip begins with its most extroverted music cue (Jose Gonzalez's 'Step Out'), and is as visually dynamic as Walter's fantasies up to that point. And that's the rub. Does the quest actually feel more exciting than all his daydreams? The more involved they are, the less like an entry into a new way of living the quest feels by comparison. So I'd try an extreme where Walter has fewer fantasies, and we don't join him for his ride when he does. This film would have to change its title, as the key tether to the short story will have been cut.
- Less front-loading the backstory. Clip back the early conversation with the mother about Papadinos - don't go into the mention of the father here. The film presses too hard on the father issues. It can come out later after he's been to the restaurant in the phone call from Iceland, and in fact, it does.
- Detective story rules. That post-modern cleverness about explaining how to construct a detective story probably wasn't necessary. But Cheryl doesn't have a lot of moments, so it's probably not the best idea to cut one of them, even if she does instruct the audience to spot the the way film's gears are turning.
- Shift the 'point of no return'. Shift the starting point of the adventure from New York (the race past Life magazine covers) to the appearance of 'Major Tom' in Greenland. Try a simple cut from him in his office with his co-worker, intuiting the Greenland connection, to being in a plane, then being in Greenland, choosing a car. Play it down rather than depict it as a film-changing moment. Save the sense of a pivotal moment for jumping on the helicopter, where his daydreams come to the aid of his real adventure. (I still wish the vision of Cheryl came later in the film, after a more significant obstacle than a drunk helicopter pilot -- such as after the dead-end in Iceland.)
- No going back (micro). In that phone call from Iceland to Cheryl, stay on Walter's side of the phone call. Make him wonder what's happening back home. This means Cheryl's physical appearances on the road are limited to her 'Major Tom' performance - which might have stronger presence if the real Cheryl was not just one cut away.
- No going back (macro). Don't go back to New York from Iceland. Keep going on to Afghanistan. Probably this is the one area where some minor pickups would have to be done. I can see why they've gone back. The journey/meander form of a solo traveller means the story can be episodic, with little continuity in anything other than the lead character. (Had someone travelled with him, it might have been different.) Going back gives a chance to reiterate the stakes at home, touch base with all the characters, advance the romantic subplot, and collect some more clues that would have been cumbersome to lay out prior to his initial departure. But I don't think it really does much - if any - of that. Firstly the reason to go back doesn't seem that strong at that point. Why is Sean Penn suddenly impossible to locate? (But then the film has a pattern of Mitty folding when faced with weak opposition.) Most of the scenes seem to reiterate stakes. Worse, it robs the ending of some of its power, since the newly-adventurous Walter is seen, mid-transformation, by witnesses, and his change partly validated. The valley of the journey around the world is that it means no one sees Walter until he's a new person. (Nor for that matter should he have seen New York, and discovered his job was lost, until his transformation was complete.) The skateboard could have been sent by post, an update on office affairs could've been relayed via the phone call to Cheryl (including her firing), the 'warlords' detail and the visit of Sean could have come out in a call to mum, and the third encounter with the transition manager would have been saved until Walter actually had the photo (making that a stronger beat). The return principally achieves the following: (i) the wallet ends up in the mother's bin and (ii) Walter recognises the piano. Not impossible things to manage from Iceland. Perhaps have him throw the wallet out in Papadinos in Iceland... it would make it even more remarkable when it somehow finds it way back to New York (because it had the address of Walter's mother in it, tacked to an invoice for the piano).
- Add a beat. Make it about Walter getting accustomed to the life of adventure. It feels like there needs to be a datapoint between mountainous Iceland and mountainous Afghanistan, particularly when both were shot in the same place. (Yemen is mentioned in passing - nice bit of contrary flavour, if still a bit rugged.)
- Linger on that pivotal photo a bit more. Or see the preceding 24 from Sean's roll over the credits. (As good as the credits are.)
Who knows, perhaps at the end of the day we would have hit command+Z nine times in the hope of getting back to the film we started with. Many a day in the editing room ends that way. But I can't help but feel there's an even better film hiding in a fairly solid one here.