With so many of the recent bigger studio award-season productions targeted squarely at adults — including films like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street -- only a few recent films really offer a cinematic escape suitable for a broader family audience. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which opened on Christmas day, is just such a picture, with plenty of fun-loving adventure, humor, and earnest sentiment to make it entertaining for everyone. It’s a simple story that makes up in charm and character what it might lack in deeper thematic points and plotting.
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With a current gross of $52 million worldwide on a $90 million production budget, the film took fourth place domestically on opening day, which considering the competition was a fine spot. And it’s performing in foreign markets at about the same level, so it should easily top $100 million by the time Oscar nominations are announced.
If the film can pull down a few of those nominations, that will give it a bump at the box office, I’m sure. I don’t expect it to win any acting or directing nods, but it probably has a dark horse shot at Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations, and perhaps a nomination for its visual effects work if the Academy looks outside of the obvious summer blockbuster options to fill one of the nominee positions (the sequence involving an erupting volcano is remarkable).
So, I think it’s fair to say we’re looking at maybe somewhere in the $150 million range at the box office, and maybe closer to $200 million if it can get a post-Oscar-announcement boost. The original film adaptation of James Thurber’s famous short story came in 1947, starring Danny Kaye and adhering more closely to Thurber’s story than does the newest cinematic incarnation (including some rather negative and repetitive portrayals of women).
Ben Stiller’s newest version is superior to the original film, and in fact to Thurber’s story. Gone is the notion of a main character who is simplistically weak and put-upon by external emasculating factors — namely, the shrill female caricatures that dominated Thurber’s original tale and Kaye’s movie. Stiller instead examines the life of a man with much potential who is merely squandering it himself while acting as if it is the external forces interfering in his ability to live a more meaningful life. Stiller’s Mitty is unappreciated by a lot of people, yes, but the person who most underestimates and under-appreciates him is Mitty himself.
The story follows Mitty’s necessary journey of self-discovery, with an interesting context involving Life Magazine being bought out and ending its print run (which actually happened in 1972, but in the film is only happening now in 2013) with a final issue that needs a particular much-buzzed-about but somehow misplaced photo by a famous photographer portrayed with humorous understatement by Sean Penn. Mitty attempts to recover the photo by seeking out the photographer, thus spending the story traveling from one locale to another in increasingly perilous and adventurous ways.
But his path is about more than merely discovering life by experiencing excitement and travel — Mitty’s father died when he was a teenager, and Mitty was forced to get a job to help support his family, and from that moment on he shrank into himself and became so afraid of loss that he stopped enjoying life. A travel log he got from his father remains empty, a stark representation of potential unfulfilled and a life unlived.
There are plenty of films that explore themes about parental loss and the loss of childhood innocence, and about the need to not be afraid to enjoy life instead of letting it become just a series of events that happen to you on your way to the grave, with more overt pure drama and intense character study. But the winning charm of Walter Mitty is that it tackles these issues in a straightforward and fun way that can be poignant at the same time it reminds you part of enjoying life is perhaps not taking yourself too seriously.
Stiller, who not only stars but directs, understands that lesson in the context of storytelling itself. He lets us see Mitty’s pain over the loss of his father and the fact he regrets that the loss led him to lose a great deal more in life, but we are allowed to smile through that pain and focus on the bigger point that it’s never too late for a second chance.
The use of Papa John’s as a glaring representation of mediocrity and of “the moment everything went wrong in life” is wonderfully played, and those who parrot the simplistic claim that this is merely a “commercial” for the pizza company and some sort of cheap product placement are proving they really didn’t pay attention or just don’t understand the most obvious thematic points.
Kristen Wiig gets a rare chance to play a mostly regular person, but has one terrific comedic moment in Mitty’s musical-number fantasy. She and Stiller shared a nice chemistry that helps their few scenes together. Adam Scott provides a real stand-out supporting performance that’s hilarious every time he’s on screen. But this is ultimately Ben Stiller’s story to carry, and it was going to rise or fall on his likeability and how much we sympathize with his character. On that level, the film definitely succeeds, managing to balance the personality of a man who has given up on himself with the inner dignity and reflection that avoid him being a timid cliche who magically overcomes his fears by having his daydreams come to life. The daydreams here are a reflection not of his weakness, but of the fact he’s still alive on the inside and only needed to find faith in himself again, in part by confronting and admitting how much the loss of his father affected him and the rest of his family.
While very different, there are some general similarities in these themes and those of Saving Mr. Banks (a film I recently reviewed very positively). While The Secret Life of Walter Mitty doesn’t delve as deep or dark as that film did, and certainly didn’t have anywhere near the emotional impact the Disney film had on me, Stiller’s film definitely has more to it than just daydreams and jokes, and deserves a better reputation than it’s gotten so far among professional film critics. Much of the negative reaction to the film is based on the false claim that it’s all style over substance, along with some complete misreadings of what the film is actually doing and saying (for example, the common complaint that Papa John’s is simple product placement in the film despite the glaring fact it is a significantly negative portrayal).
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty provides fun and laughs, but also meaningful thoughts on life and how we choose to live it, along with a touching lead performance you’ll want to root for. If you’re looking for a holiday season movie that’s different from the rest of the pack, this is definitely a film to see.
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