Invariably, some good movies get lost in the year-end glut and just never find their audience while others – duds dumped into the holiday by studios hoping for at least some return – surprise by doing better than expected.
It looks like the former fate has befallen “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
ABOUT THE FILM
Ben Stiller has been up and down throughout his career.
He’s been in a generation’s touchstone movie (1994, “Reality Bites,” which he also directed); some modern goofball classics (1998’s “There’s Something about Mary” and 2001’s “Zoolander” [a 7]); a fun movie that generated a lesser series (2000, “Meet the Parents”); and family-friendly pictures (2005’s, “Madagascar” [a 6] and 2006’s “Night at the Museum” [a 5]).
Stiller has also made some terrible movies, none worse than the remake of “The Heartbreak Kid” (a 2) in 2007.
His latest picture, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” is one of the good ones – and Stiller’s directing again, to great effect. (He also directed “Zoolander,” the funny “Tropic Thunder” (2008, a 6), and “The Cable Guy” (1996, a 4).
The original “Mitty,” based on a beloved James Thurber short story, came out in 1947 and starred Danny Kaye. Even today it’s funny.
The new Mitty’s lack of acceptance is puzzling. It’s shaping up to be an unappreciated gem.
Walter Mitty (Stiller) works for Life magazine. The print publication is being shut down and going all-electronic. A final hard-copy issue remains and reclusive photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) has submitted a one-of-a-kind photo for the last cover. Unfortunately, Stiller can’t find the negative (Penn is an old-school photographer who still shoots film).
When he’s not taking off on mental flights of fancy, Stiller is either messing around with eHarmony.com or clumsily conversing with workmate Cheryl (Kristen Wiig).
The cover negative – No. 25 – is simply missing. Inspired by Wiig, Stiller decides to try to hunt down Penn armed with only a trio of cryptic photos. Stiller has never met Penn even though the latter sent him a gift along with the roll of negatives.
Stiller heads to Greenland, then Iceland – living out his daydreams by jumping aboard helicopters, leaping into a freezing sea, fighting a shark, fleeing an erupting volcano, etc.
He’s always one step behind Penn. Finally, though, they meet, high in the Himalayas. There, Stiller discovers the secret behind negative No. 25.
Stiller is great as an actor, but he’s exceptional as a director. From the opening credits – a concept that literally keeps popping up throughout the movie – to some well-staged action sequences to several astonishing vistas, Stiller delivers a wonderful movie, visually and thematically.
Wiig, easing away from her TV roots on Saturday Night Live, holds her own, especially in the Best Scene sequence.
A running gag with eHarmony.com works, too – it pays off when the telephone voice, Patton Oswalt, finally shows up on screen.
The first action-movie mind escape is pretty good when Stiller leaps off a subway platform, into a building, and rescues Wiig’s pet just before the building blows up.
CGI is used artfully in sequences of skateboarding down a steep, windy hill in Iceland and the roiling volcano eruption, and the use of music is exceptional.
A late scene of Stiller and Penn playing soccer with some Sherpas is lovely and perfectly shot in myriad yellows.
Stiller has made it to Iceland but needs to fly on a helicopter to reach a ship at sea that he thinks Penn is on. The problem: The pilot is drunk. Stiller must decide whether to take a chance on this guy.
That’s when Wiig gets conjured up, singing David Bowie’s “Major Tom.” As the countdown is sung, he races to the lifting-off copter and jumps aboard.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK
There are several current cultural references that are going to be lost on viewers in just a few short years. That’s the price you pay for making an of-the-moment movie. But, in the future, those mentions are painful.
The one too-much action sequence has Stiller and nemesis Ted (the cocky newcomer overseeing the change at Life) fighting like Avengers as they battle through New York City streets. It’s too long.
This is a mild PG with just a couple of cuss words in it.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is good fun, and it’s too bad it’s not going to receive its deserved acclaim. For some folks out there needing a jolt of positivity, it’s the right picture for them right now.
The Movie Man might weigh in on the hubbub about “The Wolf of Wall Street” or award-bait “American Hustle.”