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'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' - 51st New York Film Festival

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Thursday, Oct 17, 2013
Still from Walter Mitty
Walter Mitty doesn't sport much comedy. It doesn't plunge into a character's emotional depths. But it has an adventurous spirit. And that may be reason enough to see the movie.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is directed by and stars Ben Stiller. So you can expect bits of comedy will be sprinkled into the movie, including a laugh-out-loud moment early on when he’s online dating and trying to contact a co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). But it isn’t a pure comedy, or even a purely romantic comedy, at least from my perspective. Its sort of an adventure-driven story of growth for the titular character that develops out of his attempts at online dating—at least in the intro, though there are some familial obligations given later as reasons he couldn’t adventure before. Apparently, in the beginning, Mitty’s profile isn’t complete, and when he calls up the website’s support services Todd (Patton Oswalt) informs him that he should fill out a prompt for ‘been there / done that’. Mitty realizing he hasn’t been there or done that inadvertently finds himself on an adventure chasing down a photo negative from famed Life-cover photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) as he’s trying to court Cheryl and to save his job at Life magazine which is about to transition into a digital online publication (in the film).


By this point it is apparent that Mitty lapses into flights of fancy, tuning out the real world as his mind attempts to release his intrepid spirit through adventurous or explosive scenes. The first such dream has a moment that echoes a jumping scene in the third Bourne movie, as the camera jumps with the actor through the window. But as the slide becomes his focus, Mitty’s reality becomes almost as implausible as his dreams. He attempts to trail O’Connell through Greenland, Iceland and the Himalayas and jumps out of a helicopter, recalls his skateboarding days and climbs mountains. The cinematography for these scenes is astounding as it displays these vistas proudly, encouraging a viewer’s own desire to explore the world.
  
If this quest was all Mitty was about, it would be great. But the movie also expects you to care about the relationship with Cheryl, about his job (even though Mitty himself doesn’t show much care for that), about his working relationship with O’Connell and about his mother, who is being moved into a retirement home. None of the other threads is fleshed out strongly enough. Though you can see where and why each serves a role in the film and maybe you can’t remove one, but it would have be better to focus on the true adventures.


The movie’s indie music selections is one of its strongest points. The soundtrack prominently features Of Monsters and Men, Arcade Fire (who created the soundtrack for Her), David Bowie and some other artists. Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” is amongst the best used tracks thematically. Its enthusiasm matches Stiller’s spirit in a scene where he breaks free from his routine to kick off his adventure. On a big screen, big music equals a bigger catharsis. Bowie’s “Space Oddity” is referenced a couple of times, starting with Adam Scott’s character (Mitty’s new boss in the transition phase for Life magazine) catches Mitty day-dreaming and prods him with the line “can you hear me Major Tom?”) before it is actually worked into a day-dream scene. Scott’s character has a full on beard in the movie, which, in case you were wondering, was a prop according to Scott, who didn’t sport a beard on the red carpet.


I didn’t get to ask the stars anything really during the carpet, but I had been to the press conference earlier. During that, Stiller indicated this film was a bit about the transition from analog to digital, that tactile things going away. It was clear that his film looks lovingly on analog era of photography, perhaps specifically travel photography given that Mitty goes on a globe-spanning expedition. You also got the sense that the filmmakers wanted to spoil themselves by venturing to Greenland, Iceland and the Himalayas, a one in a million chance to visit those places as someone put it, but it’s something not out of place for Hollywood. The cast also received questions comparing the new film versus the Danny Kaye movie version from 1947 and opposite the 1939 story by James Thurber. It seemed they wanted to make Mitty’s daydreaming more about “yearning” in this film versus “retreat” in the other versions. The full press conference is available below along with a trailer Kristen Wiig has some great responses to what movies they watched to prepare for making this one.


Press Conference:



Press Panel & Red Carpet Photos:


Trailer:


 



Red Carpet Clips:


 


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