Feelgood celebration of white male privilege

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (PG). Director: Ben Stiller. Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Shirley MacLaine, Sean Penn, Kathryn Hahn. 114 minutes

Last week I drew comparison between UK filmmaker Richard Ayoade's black comedy The Double, and American actor-director Ben Stiller's lighter and brighter The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (released this month on DVD). I noted that in the week of the Bleak Budget, the cynicism of the former resonated more strongly than the optimism of the latter. In fact that remark sold Stiller's film rather short. This ebullient remake of the 1947 Danny Kaye film turns 'uplifting' into a veritable art form.

It finds Walter (Stiller) living a staid existence, admiring a co-worker Cheryl (Wiig) from afar but without the confidence to so much as talk to her. Instead Walter is prone to wild daydreams in which he is a hero, an artist, a lover, that play out on-screen as often-hilarious parodies of Hollywood action and romance films.

The film is playfully upfront with its linguistic symbols. Inert Walter is employed as a 'negative assets manager' (he works with photographic negatives) during the dying days of Life magazine. He works for Life, but his own has stagnated. The man overseeing the magazine's closure, Ted (Scott), identifies himself as 'manager of the transition'; a euphemism for his villainous role, but also signifying the catalytic part he plays in Walter's journey.

Inspired by Cheryl, and spurred by a number of clues left for him by wild and enigmatic photographer Sean O'Connell (Penn), Walter soon finds himself on a global quest to locate a priceless negative. His experiences — jumping out of a helicopter, battling a shark, skating down the side of a volcano — begin to supplant his flights of fancy, and revitalise his life. The shamelessly inspirational message here is 'Don't dream. Do.'

There is an uncomfortable aspect to all this. Walter's ability to jet around the world in order to 'find himself' is implicitly an expression of affluent, white privilege. The film also gives short shrift to its female characters: Scott is delightfully obnoxious as Ted, and Penn brings suitable gravitas to the almost mystical role that Sean plays in Walter's life, but either of these substantial characters could easily have been women.

The only female characters are Love Interest, Mother and Sister; Wiig, MacClaine and Hahn are admirable in these roles, but they are essentially there only to provide motivation and exposition relevant to Walter's story.

There's no escaping these reservations, though ultimately they don't undermine Stiller's achievement at turning the warm-and-fuzzies up to 11. Consider the film's use of music. Stiller has selected songs that brazenly signpost his hero's emotional journey while also running fingers up and down the viewer's spine. The emphatic stomp and yowl of Arcade Fire's 'Wake Up' is perfectly placed to jolt Walter out of his rut. The aural embers of Jose Gonzales' croon warm him during his more retrospective moments.

David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' — a song about a doomed astronaut — is presented somewhat incongruously as an anthem to self-actualisation, but it works: Walter is growing despondent in a bar in Greenland when Cheryl appears as a vision, strumming a guitar and urging him on with the song's opening lines. As Walter rouses, Bowie's more expansive original fades in to help shake and speed him along the road from stupefying safety towards risk and incomparable experience. The soundtrack is a significant part of the film's power to inspire.

Perhaps the film's greatest achievement and its most distinctive feature is its forays into Walter's fantasies. These capture intuitively the ways in which an overactive imagination works; the exaggerations, the surreal digressions, the impossibilities that are neatly integrated with the more mundane aspects of daydreams.

See the way Walter leaps from a train platform and falls neatly through a window on the opposite side of the street during a 'heroic rescue'. His fantasy of engaging the repugnant Ted in hand-to-hand combat joyfully ignores the laws of physics. Walter imagines declaring his love for Cheryl and then — apropos of nothing — spirals off into a bizarre Benjamin Button fantasy that is one of the funniest scenes in any film of the past year. (And hats off here to Wiig for her sublime delivery of one of the most unlikely lines of dialogue you'll ever hear.)

I'm a sucker for a feelgood film, and this is as feelgood as they come. Given last week's unequivocal iteration of the dire state of Australian politics, perhaps we've earned the right to a bit of escapism.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Sean Penn



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Existing comments

Tim, Didn't I say we needed lightening up with "sing in' in the rain"?let's never forget the place for time out from the news of the day ( which frankly is quite disturbing). A walk in the forest, a stroll by the ocean , time out in the garden ,viewing a good lighthearted movie like "Walter Mitty'(Danny Kaye was great in the original) or reading a good book all sure beat getting too het up about some terrible things being perpetrated by our politicians and others Let's make sure we look after ourselves so we can live to fight another day!

Celia | 22 May 2014  

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