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Film review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty gets a Hollywood makeover

Richard James Havis

 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn
Director: Ben Stiller
Category: IIA

Rating: 3/5

 

Ben Stiller's adaptation of James Thurber's famous short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty combines drama and deadpan humour in a bold attempt to take a small story and turn it into an epic, blaring, emotionally wrenching, socially relevant blockbuster.

First published in The New Yorker in 1939, Thurber's short story was about an ordinary man who relieved boredom by daydreaming that he was someone more exciting. The story struck a chord with readers, and Walter Mitty passed into the language as anyone who is a hopeless daydreamer.

The original film, in 1947, was a kind of a musical drama, and this new version is an extensive rewrite of the original with a mass of new storylines.

Stiller's Mitty is a shy daydreamer who's in charge of photographic negatives at Life magazine. When the magazine is taken over by a slimy corporation who wants to turn it into a website, Mitty is charged with making sure that the final cover shot - a secret photo by legendary photojournalist Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) - makes it safely to the front cover.

Unfortunately, the all-important photo has been cut out of the 35mm film strip received by Mitty.

Encouraged by colleague Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), Mitty heads off to Greenland, Iceland, and later Afghanistan, to track down O'Connell. Along the way he discovers that he's not as boring as he thought he was.

Ultimately, the efforts of Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad falter due to the constraints of a big Hollywood picture, and a good idea ends up being shoehorned into a conventional story, complete with a standard screen romance and some maudlin family relationships. But it's still a lively try at something slightly out of the Hollywood norm, and there are some magnificent views of volcanoes and waterfalls.

Also present is an unexpected social angle. Stiller takes aim at the trend for US corporations to downsize simply to save a few bucks, ruining the lives of many loyal workers in the process. It's a welcome development to have a film addressing the deep economic difficulties many have faced.

Stiller is, of course, more known for comedy than social discourse. It's evident that Stiller, as director, was going for a tone somewhere between drama and comedy that reflects Billy Wilder classics like The Apartment. This effort falls short of that, but the result is still enjoyable.

48hours@scmp.com

 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens on December 25

 

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