The secret life of Judge Gordon Sullivan has been optioned for streaming video.
Our review of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), published December 30th, 2013, is also available.
Stop dreaming. Start living.
Some films are, by their nature, difficult to market. Genre fare is pretty easy: show the expected shots in the trailer, hit the right notes with music, and make sure the cast gets to show their stuff. Deviate from those genres though and problem seem to arise. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty must have been a beast for the market gurus to tame. Sure it's got two of the biggest comic actors of the day—Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig—the title of a story most of us have read in school, and a big budget for some sweet effects, but the film itself is a blend of comedy, drama, and fantasy that's difficult to communicate. Despite the anthemic music and amazing effects shots in the trailer, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty bombed at the box office, making barely half its budget back in U.S. returns (though overseas it did well enough to make double its budget). Despite the disappointing box office, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Blu-ray) is strong, and it's likely to become a cult classic in the decade as viewers discover the film in hi-def.
Facts of the Case
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller, Zoolander) is the quintessential nobody: he works as an "negative asset manager" for Life magazine, lives in a nondescript apartment, and pines after a woman he works with (Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids). Because his life is unfulfilling, Walter daydreams elaborate scenarios in which his life could be better: since he can't get his co-worker Cheryl's attention, he imagines himself an arctic explorer who woos her with his Latin passion. Then, Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott, Friends with Kids) shows up to tell everyone that Life is shutting down, and the final issue will feature a cover by famed photojournalist Sean O'Connell. The only problem is the frame Sean wants for the cover isn't in the roll that Walter received. With the encouragement of Cheryl, Walter embarks on a real-life adventure to find Sean and recover the missing frame.
I read James Thurber's classic story of Walter Mitty sometime during grade school, but I went and checked after the film finished. It's only 2,000 words long (or about double this review in length). It's no surprise that the short story has been in development hell for two decades. The lack of plot (not to mention the only character is a shrewish wife) and classic status of the story make any adaptation difficult.
Ben Stiller's film keeps only two elements from the largely plotless short story: the name of the protagonist and the fact that he daydreams about being a hero in various situations to make up for his pathetic life. For many adaptations, this is a problem, but Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad make so many other excellent choices that the film works as both a decent adaptation of the story and a standalone film.
The first great decision is to give Mitty a world. This seems counterintuitive, as one of the reasons that Thurber's story has survived is precisely because it doesn't have much of a world. We can all relate to Mitty's desire to escape everyday drudgery, and the fact that his drudgery is so mundane (like going to the pharmacist) means that everyone can share that experience. The Walter of the film, though, has a particular job and a particular back story (that I won't reveal) that situate him. So instead of a sketch, like the short story, the film offers us a trajectory for this character as his life changes in response to his past as well as the action of the present.
The film also wisely locates the action at the end of Life magazine's run as a print magazine. Though some might complain that setting the film at the transition from print-to-digital for the iconic magazine might be a bit on-the-nose, it both provides a solid grounding for Walter's journey to find Frame 25, while also suggesting lots of more symbolic angles from which to view the film. Walter's status as a "negative asset manager" (which means he handles film) also helps preserve some of the quixotic feel of the character from the short story.
The rest of the film is stuffed with characters to complement Mitty. Just as importantly, Stiller casts them all perfectly. In contrast to Thurber's story, the main antagonist of the screen Walter is not his shrewish wife, but corporate raider Ted Hendricks. Though Adam Scott has perhaps become a bit too comfortable playing smarmy guys, he dives into his role here with aplomb. Kristen Wiig similarly does a fine job with her role as Walter's love interest. Although she's not given enough time to develop fully, she makes her character charming and surprisingly effective. Sean Penn is even more perfectly cast as alpha-male journalist Sean O'Connell. He has to do the rough and dangerous routine, but when Walter finally catches up with him, he's even better. Shout out to Patton Oswalt, who does a great job with a small role that I don't want to spoil.
Finally, I never thought Ben Stiller could direct such a visually arresting movie. In the past, his films have been competent but fairly pedestrian, either quietly serving the story or parodying whatever genre the material called for. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, though, is a blockbuster. Walter's daydreams involve complicated CGI and sweeping visuals, but it's actually the more everyday shots that impress. Stiller provides numerous beautiful compositions, especially of natural landscapes, and tells a surprising amount of the story visually. Even if you don't like the film, it's stunning to look at.
Which brings us to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Blu-ray). The film's 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is near-perfect. Both close-ups of actors faces and the beautiful, wide vistas of Iceland are rendered in sumptuous detail. Colors, though tending towards the blue, are well-saturated. Some of the sunsets are especially amazing. Black levels stay consistent and deep as well. The only problem with the transfer is that it shows the limits of the budget; a couple of the CGI shots don't look as good as the latest $250 million blockbuster, but that's not the transfer's fault. The film's DTS-HD 7.1 track even more impressive. Dialogue is always clean and clear from the front, but it's the rest of the soundscape that sells the film. Music (both score and soundtrack cuts) fill out the surrounds and are given impressive dynamic range. During fantasy sequences, the surrounds also fill up with atmospheric details, and the low-end bursts deep bass.
Extras start with a collection of deleted/extended/alternate scenes, giving us about 15 minutes of material showing other direction the film could have gone. Then we get a little over 30 minutes of behind-the-scenes material, including some pre-viz shots. There's also a photo gallery of reference material, a music video for Jose Gonzales' "Stay Alive," and the film's theatrical trailer. A Ben Stiller commentary would have pushed this one over the edge, but what's here is pretty good for a poorly performing studio release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty casts a particular spell, and if you don't fall under it fairly quickly it will leave you behind. The film doesn't slavishly follow the short story, and in fact invents most of its material from whole cloth. To do so it borrows liberally from the romantic comedy and life-changing drama genres. It does so with very little guile. It doesn't feel like this is being at all cynical about its hero's journey—and yet those audiences not willing to go along on that journey, for cynical reasons or not, won't find much to enjoy about the film.
In ten years, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty will either be recognized as an overlooked classic or the height of studio silliness. I'm willing to bet it's the former rather than the latter, and those who avoided the film in theaters now have the chance to enjoy this film, thanks to an excellent Blu-ray.
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