[24 December 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
We are told, when we’re young, that all we have to do is dream big, and if we work hard and persevere, we can truly be anything we want. Of course, that’s all crap, the kind of illegitimate lip service people pay to children (and teens) to keep them from feeling the eventual reality of defeat. Sure, some of us get what we want, earning enough and applying it appropriately so that something resembling the above-stated promise is the result. But for most of us, the regular life of Walter Mitty is where we’ll be mired: dead-end job, no real relationships, synced to our laptop with endless hours spent balancing checkbooks and organizing our ordinariness. Perhaps this is why the hero of Ben Stiller’s Generation Y Gospel spends so much time in fantasy. Without it, what would be the point of living?
Only slightly resembling the famed short story by James Thurber, Stiller stars as the title character, a man made up of minor moments in an otherwise insular existence. He works for Life Magazine as a film processor and editor and for decades he’s dedicated himself to the efforts of elusive photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). Now, a slick corporate raider (Adam Scott) has stepped in and announced that the publication will be shuttering its doors. This throws Walter for a loop since he’s just managed to strike up an awkward friendship with a comely coworker (Kristen Wiig) and has lost the last negative of the shot Sean wants as the final edition’s cover. Putting aside his obvious introversion and fear of change, Walter sets out to find the mysterious man he’s indirectly worked with all these years, a journey which takes him from Iceland to Greenland, from the stormiest seas to the highest mountain peaks.
If yours truly was in his late 20s/early 30s and lost in the kind of mindless pursuits Walter calls living, this movie would be my Bible. It’s the Lonely Planet version of personal reinvention, a winning if ultimately weak walk through casual carpe diem and taking risks. Awash in the kind of imagery that will make young people weep with self-actualized joy and arguing for something akin to the old “don’t dream it, be it” ideal, Stiller struggles to make it all come together as a coherent whole. In fact, the film is really divided into three distinct parts - an opening which introduces the standard white hat/black hat dynamic at play, the middle section which centers on exploration and risk taking, and the finale which offers both redemption and the realization that all of one’s problems can be solved by simply standing up for yourself and calling your boss a dick.
Part One is the closest we come to seeing what a modern version of Thurber’s tale might look like. Walter frequently “zones out,” imagining himself saving people from a burning buildings or becoming a suave, Spanish accented mountaineer. He envisions comebacks that don’t happen - “You know who looks good in a beard? Dumbledore, not you” - and confidence where a meek and mild personality rules. But the minute the missing O’Connell becomes a plot point, Secret Life throws the premise away for real adventures, albeit in a decidedly hipster way. Sure, we’ll get a surreal bit involving David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” but not much else in the way of skylarking. In some ways, the entire movie feels like a viral video, a meme made out of Red Bull PR leftovers and a now cancelled show from Halogen. There hasn’t been a movie this niche since Tyler Perry discovered that his underserved African American contingent would basically sit through anything aimed in their direction.
Granted, Stiller does a great job of creating wonder. The site of his character skateboarding down the side of a volcanic peak does tweak one’s inner Magellan, but what we end up with - before the finale - is a travelogue of roads never taken. Iceland and Greenland are rendered so alien, so bereft of recognizable routines that Walter making his way through them seems slightly specious. After all, this is a guy who couldn’t figure out eHarmony yet he can make his way from an isolated pub to a ship to a remote part of the middle of nowhere where he finally finds O’Connell, and at the very least, a bit of professional closure. Penn is very good, allowing his age to do some of the character’s heavy lifting. His line readings resonate with years of experience and you can instantly see why Walter is so taken with this charismatic enigma.
Everything else, however, is a bit too pat and pre-plotted. Take the whole online dating element. It seems created to allow Patton Oswalt to show up toward the end and give Walter a much needed vote of personal confidence. When our hero learns that Wiig has a son and an on-again/off-again ex, he plays it cool…until he runs into some random man in her house and assumes that she’s decided to slag off his friendly advances and return to former pastures. No rhyme, no reason, just a return to the Walter we assumed he left behind on the slopes of some fiery locale. Even the closing of Life Magazine seems inserted to allow our lead to walk in, toward the end, and tell everyone where to go and how to get there. The middle of the movie feels organic - a little beyond belief, but organic nonetheless. The rest of the narrative simply trots out the tried and true and hopes we cope.
Luckily, we can. Stiller sends us away feeling foreign in our own skin, wondering what we’d be like if we’d taken that semester to study in England or walked out of our closed minded cubicle existence to see how people in India or Chile celebrate the New Year. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is like a PC postcard of multicultural concerns elongated out against that elusive personal vision of finding something you love and doing it for a living. In the ‘60s, films like Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces suggested that the road and the journey from point A to point B could be far more rewarding than any answer at the end of the trail. Ben Stiller’s intriguing film offers a similar solution to universal ennui. Too bad then that much of what’s depicted is bunk, or at the very least, entertaining malarkey.