Quintessence of Dust
Making a daring joke about the death of film critic Gene Siskel, Jeff Ross said the late scribe was due to review Ben Stiller’s 1999 movie, Mystery Men, but took the easy way out. Stiller’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn’t worth killing yourself over but neither is it the life affirming tale it pretends to be. It attempts to sell the lie that dull people, the kind you wouldn’t want to spend any time with because they have nothing to say for themselves, can be improved through horizon expansion; trips to far off lands; but this is the travellers’ fallacy and we’d thank the movies not to validate it.
Dullards can meet interesting people and see the world’s wonders but if they’re anything like Stiller’s Walter, they remain a blank. When film historians try to work out why this movie is so inconsequential their first port of call will be that character; the dreamer that no one thought to invest with personality.
In a movie too lethargically paced to support humour, as timing matters in such things, the only joke that works is the idea that this is a film that champions the everyman against the values of aggressive capitalism and corporate interests. The one thing Stiller gets right is adopting a style that recalls the quirky and visually inventive commercials that patient moviegoers sit through as they await the feature. That’s because Walter Mitty‘s a conflation of film and advertisement.
It looks as if Stiller had a conversation with Adam Sandler and Mike Myers about how you can inflate your budget using commercial sponsors, thus guaranteeing a huge payday for yourself. While the threadbare story driven by a quest for a photo negative, because it’s about ways of seeing you see, ticks over, the film’s attention stays firmly on name-checking the brands that have paid up front for the privilege. These include, in no particular order, Life, Apple, Google, Facebook (and their acquisition Instagram in the same dialogue scene), Sony, McDonalds, Air Greenland, American Airlines, KFC and Papa John’s.
The last of these drives an extraordinary scene in which Kristen Wiig ignores Stiller’s chat and refers him back to the chain no less than 3 times. The same scene tries to piggy back the brand onto an important part of Mitty’s backstory; a tactic so obnoxious and bare faced, one wonders if a sequel would reveal that Walter’s great grandfather was Colonel Sanders.
Another commercial sponsor, masquerading as story material, is Patton Oswalt’s eHarmony employee who phones Stiller throughout the movie for no reason other than to remind the audience that they too can find love online if they’re prepared to beef up their profile with a little international travel. Lonely hearts may choke on the irony, however, that were they to choose Mitty as a date movie, they’d probably be back to square one before the end credits. That special someone won’t expect to be bored to death, not when their other potential suitor had dinner and sex in mind.
Ultimately one could accept the movie’s string of insults, waving them away with consideration of movie business imperatives, were the story spellbinding and heartwarming but it is neither. The film’s built on a journey we don’t care about, looking for an item that’s not really important, and a burgeoning relationship that’s stillborn thanks to the absence of chemistry between Wiig and Stiller. There’s no material difference between Mitty’s fantasy life and his real world adventure: both are weightless. “It’s like Indiana Jones attempted to become the lead singer of The Strokes” says Oswalt of Stiller’s no mark. In fact it’s closer to being like a nice but boring friend who returns from holiday with a thousand photos. You don’t want to see them all but you’re forced to. Every. Single. Shot.