The Secret Life of Water Mitty (2013)
My friends know that I have a general distain for reboots, remakes or the euphemism most frequently is used to misrepresent the raison d'etre of a new movie, reimagining. More often than not it is actually a bait and switch like marketing ploy used by studio executives to justify taking a classic story and running it through the grist mill yet again. The one exemption I typically permit is the artistic need a generation has to reinterpret themes so fundamental to the human condition to view them through the perception of the fresh generation’s sensibilities. The standard examples of this encompass much of the oeuvre of William Shakespeare. The proverbial exception that proves the rule can be found with today’s movie under consideration, ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’. As was the case with the 1947 original film the story is loosely based on a short story by one of the great American humorists, James Thurber, published in 1939. One might naturally ask how a short story that his seventy five years old could possibly be relevant to this modern day and age. This is where the above stipulation concerning universal themes of perpetual validity takes hold. The character of Walter Mitty is one borne from pure imagination carefully crafted from an almost childlike sense of wonder and unbounded imagination. In my youth there was only one person could possible do justice to Mr. Thurber’s capricious character to life, Danny Kaye. He has a master class entertainer who could bring roars of laughter to audiences literally of all ages with little more than a change in expression, body language or silly rapid-fire nonsense songs. His deep love and concern over the plight of the children of the world he was made the first ambassador-at-large of UNICEF. He was born to play this role. The remake the part has gone to Ben Still. The most significant thing he has in common with the late Mr. Kaye is they were both born in New York City.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is an unassuming man whose profession has been somewhat upgraded from art supervisor for a romance novel publisher to a photo negative manager for Life magazine. It is a rather mundane position albeit one that is crucial to the release of the latest edition of the magazine. His job is to make certain the correct photographer negatives that are to be included in the issue. For those too young to remember Life Magazine built its reputation on the amazing photographs it brought to the public. Walter was rather shy and prone to day dreaming. In those fantasies Walter could break free of the bonds of reality and become a legend in his own mind. They also distract him from his social short comings, particularly regarding his crush on a co-worker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). A large segment of his job description archiving Life Magazine’s photo library entails his working closely with the staff photo journalists. One that Walter is currently assisting is very well known, Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn). The negatives he entrusted to Walter’s care were of special importance. One of the frames, number twenty-five, is hailed as the" Quintessence" of Life Magazine. It is scheduled to be used as the cover for the magazine’s final print cover before migrating to online distribution. As Walter examines the contents the contents of the envelop he notices that the all-important number twenty-five is missing.
I usually try to gauge a remake on its own independent of the original but found that exceedingly difficult under the circumstances. The espionage theme of the 1947 film fit in perfectly with the spy post war spy thrillers popular at the time. In this movie the motivational incident is the missing negative. The use of the classic trope, mistaken identity, pulling the 1947 Mitty into a viper’s nest of real spies resulted in a collision between his fantasies of himself as a daring man of action and adventure and the real Walter Mitty still living with his overly demanding mother. By confining the story to the quest for the missing negative entire aspect of Walter Mitty is not properly explored; his bridging the gap between his fantasies and reality. That is included but in such a fashion as to make Walter dubious of which world he did inhabiting.
The film generally follows the three act format of a romantic comedy. Going beyond that observation the overall feel of the movie is in that genre. Walter’s infatuation with Cheryl dominates the movie. When the second act rolls around with the mandatory crushing calamity Walter loses his job which is greatly exasperated by the prospect of her reconciling with her ex-husband. The plot contrivances to connect the story to reality are displaced in time a bit. The transition that popular magazines faced with the deadly competition of the internet is pushed by introducing the character of Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) who is in charge of the necessary downsizing; this is utilized as the plot contrivance to explain why a mistake, albeit a serious one, would have such immediate consequences. Like a rom-com the story has to move quickly from establishing the characters and context to the floor being pulled out from the protagonist to the ultimate and full anticipated happy ending. What is missing is the magical sense of whimsy that embodies the character of Walter Mitty.
This is an example of a movie that might have stood a better chance of approaching its potential had it been molded in a way that didn’t place it in the footsteps of such a beloved classic. The movie fell short of standing on its own because it cannot get out from that formidable shadow. I had been a fan of Ben Stiller; in fact I used to enjoy watching his parent’s dual stand-up comedy act on Ed Sullivan. Ben Stiller’s forte is in sketch comedy as aptly demonstrated by his avant-garde comedy series working with an ensemble cast including Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick and Bob Odenkirk. He is the kind of performer that many find uneven. I enjoyed him in ‘Tropic Thunder’ but just didn’t like his work in ‘Zoolander’. The reason for this is say what you might about this Stiller; he is always willingness to put it out there and experiment. This try just didn’t succeed. I do freely admit that the 1947 movie remains one of my life long favorites that I have frequently enjoyed with friends and family. Also, in the same vein, Danny Kaye will always be in a special place among the Parthenon of the world’s greatest comedians. There are just some films that so ideally blend the right time, place and talent that attempts to recreate is all but impossible. For example I cannot think of any way ‘Casablanca’ could be redone with any measure of success. This story occupies a similar place in my life as a cinephile.