I've been reticent to see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The wonderful short story by James Thurber has not real "story structure" as far as what movies tend to demand, and also the previous film attempt at it with Danny Kaye was so dismal. But I was intrigued enough for a few reasons and went last night.
It has pretty much next to nothing to do with the short story, but I quite enjoyed it. Though the story develops in its own, totally different way, it retains a sweetness and charm and generally weaves in the "secret life" fantasies pretty well.
It's also the most “mature” film I’ve seen from Ben Stiller by far, very well done and wonderfully shot. And above all, he got tremendous performances from everyone. Very understated, which I loved. Even from some actors known for chewing the scenery. Most notably, in some ways, from even the smallest supporting players. (The helicopter pilot in Greenland was perhaps the best on-screen drunk I’ve ever seen. Also, I’m pretty sure that the guy who plays Walter’s assistant is the same guy in a series of commercials for Allstate with the NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and he’s waaay over the top and terribly annoying in them, wildly screaming “Discount Double-check,” but he was quite wonderful here, again very low-key and effective and affecting.) I went in with reticence, as I mentioned, but I thought it was very enjoyable.
By the way, there was one odd scene – what I'm about to describe has zero to do with the plot, just something plopped into a scene for no apparent reason, but I'm pretty certain I figured out the reason, and so it's fun to know what you're seeing, rather than just scratch your head and think, "Whatever." If you don't want to know, stop reading this paragraph, otherwise -- in one fantasy, Walter appears on a TV talk show. And during the interview, there’s a bust sitting on the desk the whole time, just sticking out like a sore thumb. And then it suddenly hit me, it had looked so familiar, but I didn't know why -- and I figured out what it was there for, though they cut the scene at that moment, so I didn’t get to 100% confirm it. But a light bulb went on, I looked close, and realized, “That’s James Thurber!” As I said, I didn’t get a chance to double-check, but I’m near-certain that’s what it was. And if so, good for them to have such a wonderful little homage. Even if it goes past most everyone.
By the way, a few months back, I told the tale here of the off-Broadway musical version of the story, and posted the one famous song from it, "Confidence," which because the theme song for years of the NFL broadcasts on CBS. Though the stage version has nothing at all to do with the movie, of course, I thought it would be a good opportunity to play another very nice, unknown song from the unknown show. This is Walter (performed by Marc London) singing wistfully of how his relationship with his wife Agnes has changed over the years (something, if not exactly in the original story) is at least closer to it than anything in the movie.)
As a bonus, here's how it all resolves itself at the end of the musical. Walter is pushed by some others into making decisions that come close to mucking up his life, but he's able to avoid throwing everything away, in part pulled back by his wife. Life returns to normal, and that means retreating into his solace of secret life fantasies -- which manifest themselves throughout the show by the enthusiastic, heart-thumping Walter Mitty March.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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