Friday, January 17, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller, 2013)

Corporate Compromise

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a film that with great regularity declares itself to be a film about escaping the drudgery of modern life and finding yourself as an individual. It's about taking risks and embracing chance. The narrative urges the audience to see the world and to not fear the unexpected. It's also about the incredible bonding power of a good Cinnabon.

Most of us are probably semi-resigned to product placement - it's been around in various guises for decades, and while it's by its nature a cynical practice (albeit with sometimes understandable economic benefits for producers in the expensive world of film production) I for one am if not happy then at least willing to simply ignore or tolerate it as long as it's unobtrusive. For the most part, it really only tends to affect films that are already in some way compromised by corporate interference anyway. Which, with an alleged budget bordering on $100 million, a big name star / director, and the participation of many major Hollywood production houses, Walter Mitty already is.

But it's still a shock to see any film engage in placement as unashamedly as Walter Mitty does. Many of its characters and narrative focuses are in some way closely related to named companies. The most obvious one is that Mitty works in the now defunct Life magazine. That is mostly acceptable: while there is still the remnants of a Life online as a subsidiary of Time, its presence is clearly intended as an insanely unsubtle metaphor about - yes - real life and creativity as opposed to purposeful corporate skullduggery. Lacking in any sort of nuance though it is, the ideas at least thematically supports the publication's persistent presence. In the hands of a more artful director than Stiller or writer than Steven Conrad, however, it would have been possible to articulate these ideas without resorting to such blatantly obvious metaphorical tactics that are so in our face they go far beyond subtext.

The other examples of product placement are much less forgivable, and ultimately utterly hypocritical. The film opens with Mitty (Stiller) browsing E-Harmony, and one of the film's 'pivotal' supporting characters turns out to be a customer service representative for said dating site (played by Patton Oswalt). The narrative role here could have been served by any generic, fictional website, and instead of lending the film some real world credibility the regular presence of a named company comes across as distracting and condescending: a thinly veiled advertisement in lieu of anything that actually serves the story. Similarly, Mitty's character has a backstory heavily involving pizza franchise Papa John's. Again, it's a horribly written piece of something the screenplay tries to justify as a deep-rooted character motivation, but can't help but feel desperately shoehorned in for reasons that couldn't be deemed artistic.

Most grievous of all, though, is the scene where Mitty finally meets Oswalt's character in real life, having previously communicated exclusively through a series of inconveniently timed phone calls. Where does the encounter with this inspirational E-Harmony sage take place? A Cinnabon (a brand which thankfully hasn't made it to this Irish isle yet). It's a ghastly scene to witness, including several pornographically framed shots of Cinnabon products and the characters merrily discussing the deliciousness of their snack (actually referred to as 'frosted heroin'). It feels genuinely uncomfortable to be marketed at so directly in the middle of a feature film, although at this late point audience members will have learned to decipher and actively reject the film's troubling product placement trend.

As you might have gathered, what's so regrettable about the film succumbing to all this is that it so aggressively conflicts with everything the film seems to be trying to preach. For a story all about shaking off conformity and doing something different, it's hypocritically attached to celebrating several faceless corporations. If there was some sort of critical eye commenting on all this placement - and if we're being generous, the story's Papa John's references are bittersweet - we might forgive it. But no: if there's a subtext here, it's well disguised, and is more likely non-existent. That inspired Wayne's World gag seems more relevant now than ever.

Even if we removed all the E-Harmony talk, this reimagining of Walter Mitty would still underwhelm. It's crowdpleasing in the most unwelcome way, with a script and direction that don't earn what it clearly thanks are massively emotional payoffs. Every dramatic beat is scored to triumphant pop or rock music that attempts to drown out the audience's critical abilities. The use of gratuitous slow motion and 'epic' traveling montages wear out their welcome fast. The core philosophical and motivational points seem to be regurgitated from a poorly translated fortune cookie note. The characters are lazily stereotypical archetypes. Kristen Wiig is charming, but severely limited as a textbook example of the Manic Pixie Dream Woman. Aren't we over that trend yet? Adam Scott, meanwhile, plays a managing director so cartoonishly evil that we do not suspect even for a second that this 'person' is anything other than a lazy writer's creation.

And Mitty himself is nothing but a barely present (admittedly on purpose) blank slate straddled with strange, unconvincing backstory. We're told, as the plot demands it, that he was once a prodigious skateboarder, but it seems as if he hasn't picked up a board in the guts of two decades - in fact, much of the film's major character conflict is based on that implication. Naturally, when the plot further demands it, he's conveniently a world-class boarder that can expertly pull off a standing kickflip or manual, and can effortlessly and stylishly navigate his way down a several mile long Icelandic motorway on a longboard. Who needs internal credibility when there's drama to contrive? It also doesn't help that it's not the most convincing stunt double work in the world, with the camera distractingly out of focus during one particular skating effort. But hey, at least the exotic settings are lovingly framed in 35mm (the film's sole subtext worth rejoicing is it's affection for analog photography) by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, and made me wonder why other, better films have so infrequently utilised the gorgeous landscapes of Greenland and Iceland, the latter of which also subs for rural Afghanistan.

There's a few scenes near the start of the film where, as in the original book and film, Mitty daydreams fantastical alternate realities. The best of which sees Stiller and Scott burst out of the office to engage in a citywide albeit heavily CGIed fantasy brawl. It's silly, but also a rare burst of energy and excitement in a film that almost always seems underwhelming and ill-crafted. For all its globetrotting, dramatic situations and emotional peaks, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a film that seems rotting and meek. Most depressingly of all, the aggressive product placement sees the film shamelessly contradict its own moral compass, committing a graphic form of artistic seppuku. It would almost be sad if it wasn't so miserable to watch.

No comments:

Post a Comment