The Quintessence of Life: Ben Stiller’s ‘Walter Mitty’

Ben Stiller as Ben Stiller in 'The Secret Life of Ben Stiller'

Ben Stiller as Ben Stiller in ‘The Secret Life of Ben Stiller’

This is a film in which Stiller is unable to shake off the grand American film tradition of preaching some kind of higher lesson to its presumed naive audience.

In this case, it is “get away from your mechanical, worthless, stressed-out jobs and go explore the grand wide world, have experiences that you can note down in a small notebook and maybe grow a scruffy beard while you’re at it”.

The irony here is even when Walter Mitty does make that leap of faith and goes away to Greenland, he is still thinking of his woman co-worker crush Cheryl (played in a nice, understated way by Kristen Wiig). He is cycling through one of the most breathtaking sceneries (captured so by Stuart Dryburgh) and all he can look at is how a flock of birds forms the shape of Cheryl’s face.zorb ball for sale canada

But then, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is second only to Reality Bites (1994) in all the films that Ben Stiller is responsible for.

Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography is the best thing about this film. Images of people going to their jobs in lifeless urban landscapes are reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s masterpiece PlayTime (1967) but unfortunately, Stiller’s Walter Mitty is no Monsieur Hulot.

There have been flashes of occasional genius from Stiller the actor in films like The Royal Tenenbaums (2000) and Greenberg (2010), and Stiller the director in films like The Cable Guy (1996), Tropic Thunder (2008) and in Reality Bites too, but one can’t help but feel that he hasn’t really outgrown his early-nineties’ run at The Ben Stiller Show where he frequently enacted extended comedy sketches that parodied erstwhile popular culture. This is a noble purpose, but rid of any real critical agency, it is merely imitation and not much else. Indeed, there is a leftover from the TV show: a fantasy sequence in the film where Stiller’s Walter Mitty parodies Brad Pitt’s character from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) that is both distracting and unnecessary (not to mention expensive, with all the make-up and visual effects that went into it).

Perhaps the most interesting ten minutes of the film occur when Sean Penn’s character finally makes an appearance as old school renegade photographer Sean O’Connell. Up until this point he looms over the film as a mythical being who Walter Mitty is chasing all around the globe (throughout which, in Hollywood’s version of optimistic universalism, everyone is a convenient speaker of English). Connell’s little speech about ‘being in the moment’ would’ve been super-corny if it hadn’t been for Sean Penn’s competency as an actor.

Another interesting plot point that Walter Mitty has it going for it throughout its runtime is the Macguffin that is the ‘negative 25′: the photo-frame that is to be the cover of the final issue of Life magazine or the ‘quintessence of life’ as Sean Penn’s character puts it.

This, the true meaning of the film’s universe, is discovered at the end and Stiller appears for a moment to not reveal the grand secret in a soaring and sentimental reverse-shot. But this is where Stiller’s Hollywood instincts take over and he once again resorts to beating his own drum. The photo-frame is revealed in one of the final last shots in the film and turns out to be the cover of Life magazine’s (the title of the magazine itself is not a co-incidence but a deliberate poetic gesture, the sort Hollywood gushes over, ‘quintessence of Life’) final issue.

What does it contain? A picture of Walter Mitty, of course. Or of Ben Stiller himself.

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