The Secret Life of Ben Stiller
There are a million reasons (about $100 million budgetary ones, to be exact) that I should hate Ben Stiller’s new adaptation of James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, written by Steve Conrad and directed by and starring Stiller.
For this latest update (following the 1947 Danny Kaye version), Walter Mitty (Stiller) is now a modern-day photographic archivist, a physical negative handler for LIFE Magazine at a time when both the magazine and its photography are going all-digital.
Of course Mitty still spends half his time lost in elaborate daydreams fueled by Hollywood hero fantasies, but Walter’s own flat, grey, carefully calibrated life is upended on multiple fronts when he simultaneously develops a crush on a winsome co-worker (Kristin Wiig) and learns (from a hilariously hirsute Adam Scott as his new digital-asshole boss) that the magazine (and most likely his anachronistic job) are morphing away into the Internet ether.
That one-two punch spurs Walter to impulsively set off across Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan by helicopter (drunkenly piloted), ship (complete with shark-infested waters), car (outrunning an erupting volcano), and skateboard in search of a mysterious missing photo from a ruggedly elusive star photographer (Sean Penn, nicely both embracing and mocking his own self-serious image). Along the way, we learn how Walter’s loss of his father at a young age deferred his plans, goals, and dreams for a not-so-wonderful dull life of George-Bailey-esque responsibility (sans the loving family and friends).
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a deep-pocketed Hollywood movie that wears its “big ideas” on its oversized, glossy, movie-star sleeve and proudly tosses out not-so-subtle winks about our current human existence, like calling the new web-only version of LIFE “LIFE Online” or describing the lost photo as “the quintessence of LIFE.” All that makes The Secret Life of Walter Mitty feel “heavy-lite;” a pop-culture, Oprah-world concoction that puts the film in the dubious company of other shiny, high-minded, high-concept upper-middle-brow “What is Our Life All About” movies like Forrest Gump and The Truman Show (both, not coincidentally, starring former funny guys gone semi-serious).
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty gives us a rich, successful Hollywood star (who’s made millions by letting small children, animals, and Robert DeNiro punch him in the nuts) working through his mid-life career ennui; whining—through Thurber’s 75-year-old proxy—that his life doesn’t feel fulfilled.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty not only wallows in blatant placement for airport-lounge consumerist products that are either disgustingly bad for you or run with semi-disgusting corporate creedos (eHarmony, Cinnabon, Papa John’s Pizza), but deftly integrates the products seamlessly into its narrative in an impressive display of crass cross-promotional skill. (Though it doesn’t hurt that the otherwise odious eHarmony is represented onscreen by the always-brilliant Patton Oswald.)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a confident, good-looking exploration of “mid-life insecurity,” full of carefully calculated “whimsy” wrapped in the rich sheen of an emotionally and visually saturated car/beer/computer-device/life-insurance commercial; one driven by yearning indie-rock anthems with ready-to-wear epiphanies built into the choruses.
In other words, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is exactly the sort of movie I’ve become increasingly allergic to in recent years.
Yet… You know how sometimes when those earnestly hip (or hip-ly earnest) car/beer/computer-device/life-insurance ads pop up on TV, you really want to hate them, but find yourself secretly, shamefully not fast-forward through them on the DVR? For me, that’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
So, in a messed-up, hypocritical, co-dependent way, I kinda love Stiller’s new film.
At heart, I accept that my reason for not loathing Mitty (say, in the way I loathe Saving Mr. Banks) may be as simple and indefensible as the fact that I’m a sucker for really pretty landscape pictures set to songs from The Arcade Fire and David Bowie.
But I can also make a (only slightly) less flimsy case for it having to do with Stiller himself, who I’ve always found fascinating and felt something of a vague connection to. Stiller’s life, upbringing, and career couldn’t be further from my own, but on some deeper (shallower?) level we are of the same age and share the same pop-cultural touchstones and influences (see: The Arcade Fire and David Bowie, above).
And so, about the time Ben Stiller—multi-millionaire comic star of the Fockers and Night at the Museum franchises—feels the need to soothe his mid-life emptiness with mushy epic paeans to a more soul-rich existence—and does so with pretty landscape pictures set to The Arcade Fire and David Bowie—well, I’m right there with him.
(Though, as an old Bowie fan, contrary to what Wiig’s character says in one of the film’s many Facebook-meme-friendly aphorisms, “Space Oddity” is not about “the courage to go into the unknown” but rather is an ode to alienation and cosmic detachment. Which probably doesn’t work as well in the film’s context…)
A lot has been written of the Two Ben Stillers: The cash-cow clown, uptight butt of body fluid jokes in box-office blockbusters; and then the more subversive filmmaking satirist of Zoolander and Tropic Thunder, not to mention the performance I suspect is closest to Stiller’s true inner self-loathing: his starring role in Noah Burnbach’s mumble-core Portrait of the Artist as an Asshole, Greenberg (2011). (At one point in Mitty, we glimpse a LIFE portrait of Peter Sellers, another terrifically talented, multi-faced comic actor whose popular slapstick obscured darker doubts and demons.)
But what I find more fascinating is the notion that there’s really just one Ben Stiller: A prince of Hollywood, child of TV-comics Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, who’s grown up so deeply entrenched in show-business that its pop culture trappings are his only frame of reference—even when he tries to express an existential longing, his reality is still about the making of fantasy. (His films Reality Bites, The Cable Guy, Zoolander, and Tropic Thunder all feature protagonists stranded in their own delusions.) Stiller is Hollywood’s Hamlet, bedecked in the jeweled accruements of show-biz royalty and rich off his willingness to work hard to entertain the masses, but always sulking off to the darker corners to brood over What it All Means and What He Should Do About It.
Stiller’s show-biz upbringing and career have blended into his generation’s TV-fed, Internet-nurtured, pop-culture psychic and emotional dreamland (a shared experience mapped out across ‘70s TV shows, ‘80s New Wave pop music, and ‘90s material achievement).
But where Stiller the filmmaker satirized the self-mocking foolishness of show business in Zoolander and Tropic of Thunder, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is his mid-life grasp at something post-cynicism.
Mitty is a personal passion project for Stiller; an Industry-bred pragmatist reaching for the clouds of aspirational hopes and dreams, trying to wrassle—complete with WWE levels of artificiality—with the reality of being 40-something, of tallying up the emotional costs and dividends of personal and professional “successes” against those youthful ambitions.
The irony is that even when Stiller goes for authenticity and genuine emotion, he still expresses it in broad strokes—he’s still a child of cinema and entertainment and can’t shake his Hollywood instincts. Stiller’s cinema is faux-visionary in a solid, predictable way—despite his over-excitable on-screen persona, behind the camera, his steady professionalism is his most heartfelt expression of self—like his parents, with their variety-show backgrounds, Stiller knows that presenting comic-tragic chaos on stage means years of tireless hard work back stage.
Mitty is no mopey, mumble-core slog through middle-age angst and self-doubt—even when the film sets aside Mitty’s movie-fueled daydreams for “real life” adventures, the vistas (including the rocky green-grays of Greenland, Iceland, faux Afghanistan, and even the canyons of New York City) are still, as shot by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, draped in the gorgeous palate of a National Geographic pictorial.
(Throughout, Mitty champions a nostalgia for old-school analog authenticity: actual film-stock negatives; grizzled, globe-trotting photographers; and dedicated, precise photo handlers and archivists. The film itself was shot on 35mm instead of the now-standard digital.)
If Mitty is lost in his daydreams, then the film itself offers up an aspirational dream version of a mid-life crisis and emotional rebirth; make no mistake, Walter’s journey of self-fulfillment is much prettier, more moving, and more exciting than yours.
Bright, crisp, clean, and grand in its uplift, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty holds itself—even it’s “real” scenes—up as a Hollywood fantasy, a tactic all the more apparent thanks to Stiller’s trademark self-aware cinema and purposeful artifice, played out in this case as epic visual grandeur as well as a smattering of clever-clever winks and gimmicks. The large-scale, bombastically fanciful narrative detours and the film itself makes the case for daydreams not as empty escapism but as an ideal, as blueprints, as motivation for a richer life.
Stiller ladles all this on with a shamelessly joyous sappiness that I found myself almost respecting, coming as it does from someone I consider a cynical kindred spirit in general self-loathing, ennui, and misanthropy—a Scrooge who wants to embrace the light.
Either that, or I really was completely snowed (‘tis the season, you know) by pretty landscape pictures set to The Arcade Fire and David Bowie.