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Feelgood celebration of white male privilege

  • 22 May 2014

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