Here is a comic that attempts to tap into the elegant simplicity of the James Thurber short story. It is a delicate and precise little story: A henpecked husband daydreams he’s a hero while he goes about his mundane life. Two major motion pictures, in 1947 and in 2013, have taken this little story to great heights. This is a distillation of the original 1939 short story drawn in my take on the style of Thurber cartoons.
And there you have it, the whole story told in only six panels. I’d like to think that Mr. Thurber would have appreciated this tribute.
There’s a very cool, even flawless, indie movie, inside of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” This is a major motion picture, so the beautiful moments in this film must allow for the tentpole to go up and lure in the biggest audience. The CGI effects are great but they can get carried away as in one extended scene involving Walter Mitty and his boss duking it out, moving as if powered by jets, down midtown Manhattan. CGI is notorious for providing mixed results or downright duds in the humor department. There’s also a crowd pleaser daydream sequence involving a parody of “Benjamin Button” that, while funny, is jarring in its being out of place. But not to worry because, at its heart, this is a movie full of exquisite comedic timing, led by Ben Stiller as Walter Mitty, the ultimate daydreamer, and Kristen Wig as Cheryl Melhoff, his coworker and the object of his affection.
The secret to this movie’s success is in all its fine understated moments. There are many of them. And they’re very funny and touching. Those first opening shots of Walter at the subway platform on the phone with a rep from eHarmony are some of the best moments of comedy you’ll find anywhere. Audiences have already seen them in trailers and laugh each time they see them. And when they see them again in the movie, they laugh that hearty laugh from anticipating something they know to be good. By the time we reach the conflict between Walter and his boss, Ted Hendricks (played by Adam Scott), the plot has tightened up and has to ride out some unfunny edge. Mitty has been a longtime employee at Life Magazine. But the venerable magazine has reached its last print issue. The cover will be graced by a photo from its most legendary photographer, the mysterious Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn). That is if Mitty can find the missing negative.
At this point, once the chase is on to find the missing negative, the movie is entering its most dangerous territory, predictability. Based on James Thurber’s classic short story, the script by Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness) leans heavily in the feel good camp but there are ways to have your cake and eat it too. Cake, now that I mention it, plays an important role in this movie. It’s Walter’s mom, played by Shirley MacLaine, that makes the best pineapple upside-down cake in the world. It’s so good that it can charm Afghan warlords. If that sounds like a plot out of an old Flintstones cartoon, that would be a fair assessment. But as syrupy as this hero’s journey can get, the actors can ride out those rough spots. Stiller and Wig together carry this comedy in for a safe and funny landing.
As with any worthwhile comedy, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has a meaningful core, once you pare away the big budget excess. Stiller is compelling as a man trying to find himself. On his journey of self-discovery, he must track down a larger-than-life enigma in order to find the answers he seeks. If Stiller and company had wanted to edit down their way to a more precise expression of what Walter Mitty meant to them, they could have done it. For a movie that takes a more substantial route with a somewhat similar plot, you’ll want to check out Steeve Coogan and Judi Dench in “Philomena.” But that’s comparing apples to oranges. Mr. Coogan made exactly the sort of movie he was after. And Mr. Stiller made exactly the sort of movie he was after.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty goes into wide release on Christmas Day.