Tuesday, December 17, 2013

'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' (2013) directed by Ben Stiller

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a film torn between the twin poles, sincerity versus against commerce.  The central figure of Walter Mitty, a nebbish fantasist who lapses into daydreams as a coping mechanism to get through an unfriendly world, feels very of the moment, even though the character's origins are in James Thurber's short stories published in the New Yorker in 1939.

The 2013 Walter Mitty is a negative asset manager for Life Magazine: processing the increasingly rare physical negatives that photographers send in.  He's reticent, introverted and physically unassuming, but intelligent, caring and generally pretty nice.  As we begin the film we find Life Magazine undergoing a corporate raid which marks the end of the print publication. With promised layoffs to come, Mitty, working in a darkened back room in an increasingly obsolete medium, fears for the worst.  Compounding his pessimism is a missing photograph that's heralded as the "quintessence" of Life Magazine; a photograph that's going to adorn the cover of the final edition. The meat of the film is Walter Mitty's quest for this image; the journey taking him thousands of miles over land, sea and air.

The first third of the film shows Mitty frequently "zoning out" into masculine power fantasies.  They're presented as playful bits of fun but underneath the joke that this shrimpy little guy is engaged in imaginary titanic battles there's a constant and underlying violence to them - something that becomes even more disturbing the more its repeated.  We soon come to understand that everything about Walter Mitty's world is designed to rob him of masculinity, to diminishing him as a man in the eyes of his family, his co-workers and Cheryl, the woman he admires from afar.  

The American office worker losing his mojo is pretty timely given the continuing aftershocks of economic crisis in the US. So Mitty's worries over his job security, confidence issues with women, fretting over money and being victimised by sarcastic alpha males will ring true with a large portion of the audience.  Power fantasies; be they violent daydreams, hardcore pornography, superhero movies or milporn videogames, function as a massage for the male ego - a way for men with no power and agency to hit back against emasculation and find somewhere - anywhere - where they can be King for a few snatched seconds.

So Walter Mitty, as we first meet him, is a character pregnant with promise.  Unfortunately it's in untangling his ball of string where the film comes unstuck.  His character development becomes tied to the increasingly action-packed real-life experiences.  As he leaps from helicopters, fights sharks or engages in high-speed skateboarding nirvana he becomes more rugged, more confident, more masculinity: finding his bravery and enabling himself to overcome any hurdle life places in front of him.  

Masculinity in Walter Mitty appears to be directly connected to the length of your beard. Walter Mitty as bullied underdog is utterly clean-shaven, bullied by a trio of smartly bearded, power-suited corporate raiders.  As he travels around the world he encounters beardy, self-actualised men of all varieties, and Mitty's absorption of important lessons from them allows him to grow a fine, lustrous beard of his own - a beard which appears to confer authority and potent male sexiness upon him - able to demolish the men who once kicked sand in his eyes and literally climb the highest mountain.

I'm not entirely sure why the film is fixated on beards in particular, but I suppose as a visual cue to show the character's development they're as good as any other.  Unfortunately this is about as clear as the film gets, and soon the films waters are unpleasantly muddied.  The biggest offender is the rather obnoxiously upfront product placement for eHarmony - a dating website with a greedy eye on the bank accounts of the lovelorn lonely.  eHarmony essentially becomes Mitty's only friend for much of the film, enthusiastically encouraging our hero and at one point literally coming to his rescue.  This is the most egregious bit of advertising, though the film also instructs us to eat delicious pizza at Papa Johns and uses the company motto of the defunct Life Magazine as the character's motto. 

In a film that on one level functions as a critique of corporate influence on art and on another as a critique of male power fantasies the repeated intrusion of a rather depressing dating website saps the film of a lot of power.  On an artistic level Walter Mitty is a rather handsome, heartfelt film so I can only assume that Stiller must have included this heavy-handed advertising under financial duress, which undermines the main story of corporate raiders tarnishing the high ethics of Life Magazine.  Secondly, eHarmony itself is a Walter Mitty style fantasy: enabling users to browse pay-per-view partners as they caressing the warm plastic of a computer mouse imagining some fictional lover's skin.

This is the critical flaw at the heart of Walter Mitty: while it's trying its best to function as a how-to guide for emasculated men to escape powerless lives it's actually reinforcing the very miseries that have gotten them there in the first place.  Walter Mitty's growth, contrasting his fantasies with his 'real' encounters with Afghan warlords, killer sharks and exploding volcanoes is just another layer of daydreaming.  The constant advertisements for a dating website only further undermine the message.  This is a film that wants its male audience to overcome useless testosterone-powered daydreaming by actually doing something with their lives, yet as the credits roll all it's done is to reinforce the power of mental masturbation.

That's not to say Walter Mitty is a particularly bad film.  It mostly looks great, has a decent soundtrack and there's no hitches performance-wise.  This isn't some tossed off grossout comedy with no goal except profit, it's got something to say, and it's trying to be as sincere as possible.  But in the process of making its way onto the screen this sincerity has been parasitically infected by the very thing it's trying to overcome - leaving us with a shell.  An artful, good-looking and pleasant shell, but a hollow one.


The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is on general release from December 26th. 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

0 Responses to “'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' (2013) directed by Ben Stiller”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights