Film reviews: Secret Life of Walter Mitty | All is Lost

IT DOESN’T matter if you are unfamiliar with the James Thurber short story or the 1947 Danny Kaye film because there’s no tapocketa machine, no domineering mother, and no real playfulness left in Ben Stiller’s reboot.

Ben Stiller, star and director of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Picture: Contributed
Ben Stiller, star and director of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Picture: Contributed

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (PG)

Director: Ben Stiller

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Running time: 114 minutes

* *

As well as directing, Stiller takes the lead as Walter Mitty, who daydreams situations where he is courageous and brave. In reality, he’s a timid everyman who doesn’t even have the moxie to woo co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig, with the personality turned down to zero), and spends his days in the basement of LIFE magazine, processing pictures.

Unfortunately this LIFE is on the brink of print death, and its move to online publishing is being supervised by an obnoxious, bearded suit (Adam Scott) so intent on being unpleasant that you wonder why Walter doesn’t start fantasising about unemployment tribunals instead. Yet Mitty is the only man trusted by LIFE’s prize snapper, Sean O’Connell, played by Sean Penn, an actor not previously known for his abiding love of photographers.

Unfortunately, when Walter opens the Herzogian photographer’s final portfolio, a spectacular cover picture, destined to represent “the quintessence of life”, is lost – and if the bearded suit finds out, this will probably cost Walter his job. So Walter decides to chase after Sean across the world, incurring a series of encounters with volcanoes, shark fights and blizzards.

Filmmakers from Ron Howard to Steven Spielberg have been trying to get this revamp of Walter Mitty up and running for 20 years, and perhaps the reason it has lingered on the stocks is that this version oddly champions the little guy in co-operation with faceless corporations. Walter takes concerned calls from an eHarmony administrator, a pizza company offers solace elsewhere, and apparently when blokes meet up after death-defying adventures, they ostentatiously treat themselves to a global branded cinnamon cake. Maybe the film is clumsily telegraphing something about the decency of the little people within monolithic organisations, but I doubt it. I only consider it possible because the movie is so hamfisted elsewhere. Some points are blasted at you like an Alpine horn, yet you can barely hear the film’s central “seize the moment” message amidst the clamour of uplifting anthems and craven product plugs.

Some fantasies are pretty odd too, especially as Walter daydreams the closing moments from Benjamin Button. It’s an unfunny joke, four years too late for most audiences, although, since the film is set in 2000, also eight years too early for Walter.

On the upside for Stiller, Walter Mitty suggests that he can handle the visuals of romance, action and fantasy with slick versatility. But this pales in comparison with his attentiveness to his own appearances, including a special keylight that makes his eyes look bluer. No-one else gets this lighting, not even Walter’s love interest. There’s also an extended paean to Ben’s skateboarding skills, and when someone admiringly describes Walter late in the picture as looking like “Indiana Jones became the lead singer of the Strokes”, it’s a jolt to realise that although Walter Mitty has stopped fantasising, we still have another 30 minutes of Ben Stiller’s dull vanity daydreams to go.

All Is Lost (12A)

* * *

IN THE middle of the Indian Ocean, an unnamed man (Robert Redford) wakes up in his bunk to find his cabin flooded with water. While sailing solo, his boat has been rammed by a container ship; his engine, radio and laptop are waterlogged, and the boat is sinking.

There are no other characters, and no other storylines and yet All Is Lost is absorbing if you are in the mood for elemental cinema. It also elicits a remarkably naturalistic performance from a battered Redford who does many of the dangerous and sodden stunts. Billed as “Our Man”, his character is resourceful in a way that underscores human resilience without resorting to the soaring sentiment of Gravity.

I liked Gravity, but its pleasures were largely external, and only achieved ­lift-off provided you believed that Nasa would send a depressed rookie klutz into space. All Is Lost operates at the other end of the spectrum, as a calm, pragmatic process that refuses to embrace despair, and marks out JC Chandor as an intriguing director of deceptively minor-key narratives.

Chandor’s last film was Margin Call, about the overnight collapse of a bank where no-one seemed to shut up. All Is Lost is practically wordless but you can almost hear Redford’s thoughts as emotions current across his face and he tries to problem-solve repairs, supplies of drinking water and means of rescue.

Its spareness reminds you of The Old Man And The Sea, and ultimately the storms that gather for us all.

Twitter @SiobhanSynnot