The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Review

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If there’s one thing that I’ve learned this year, it’s that trailers cannot be trusted. This summer, I was overly excited for Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, thanks to its expertly directed first trailer. The same was true for Ben Stiller’s sixth directorial effort, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Like the former, Walter Mitty generated a lot of positive buzz prior to its release, which ultimately left a lot of critics disappointed because the actual film is kind of a mess.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a very loosely based adaptation of a short story of the same name written in 1939 by James Thurber. In the story, the eponymous Walter frequently daydreams as a means to spice up a mundane shopping trip with his wife. Throughout its tortuously long development process, a myriad of directors and lead actors accepted- and then dropped- their various positions. Ultimately, Ben Stiller was billed as both the director and the lead in 2011, and production began shortly thereafter. It seems like Stiller had no clear vision for the film, and subsequently attempts to span a number of genres and ends up executing none of them particularly well. As is so often the case, a whole bunch of little bits and pieces stitched together from other genres amounts to a whole bunch of nothing at all.

The film stars Ben Stiller as Mitty and Kristen Wiig as stereotypical love interest Cheryl Melhoff. Sean Penn also makes an appearance as the globe-trotting, Hemingway-esque photojournalist Sean O’Connell, whom Walter is tasked with tracking down. Stiller and Wiig have this weird chemistry between them which relies upon really awkward, hard to watch interactions. I’m not sure who decided that it would be engaging to watch the world’s two most awkward people play off one another, but it does little in the way of making us relate to Walter’s character and his desire to woo her.

According to Wikipedia, Walter Mitty is a “romantic adventure fantasy comedy-drama.” With such a broad ‘vision,’ the film feels unfocused and a little schizophrenic as comedy bits are interspersed with soul-searching sentimentality and sweeping, panoramic shots of epic landscape with little transition in between. Just as the tone of the movie is a bit scattered, the plotting has some pretty serious problems as well. Walter Mitty employs a narrative technique that another critic once called ‘fashionably-late syndrome,’ which relies on the objective having moved on to a different location once the protagonist has caught up with it. Aside from being a really shitty way to get the audience to become engaged- there’s usually not enough payoff for us to keep our interest- it’s a great way to showcase as many exotic locations and set pieces in a relatively small amount of time, which is probably what Stiller was trying to accomplish in lieu of a more substantive story.

Making matters worse is the fact that the film is incredibly gimmicky. Stiller no doubt knew that he had an interesting idea in the form of the day dreaming sequences, but it’s clear that he had no idea how to implement them. It’s weird, because those sequences- which are presumably supposed to be the selling point of the movie- occur only within the first thirty minutes, and do nothing to progress the plot or teach us anything new about the characters. They could have been taken out entirely and Walter Mitty would have been essentially the same movie. I’d ask why they were put in the film at all, but the cynic in me would say that they needed some action sequences to flash on the screen for the trailers.

On a different note, the amount of product placement in this movie is just absurd. Product placement doesn’t even bother me as much as it does other people, so just know that it had to be really noticeable for me to comment on it at all. Throughout the entire film, the audience is bombarded with everything from Papa John’s and Chase Bank to eHarmony and Cinnabon. It’s a little worrying, to be frank. It even makes me wonder if so many high-profile sponsors contributed to the film being as inoffensively bland as possible.

That being said, I did have higher hopes for  The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but I guess I’ve learned my lesson. If it’s any consolation though, the film actually looks really pretty, with a bright, visually engaging palate and some jaw-dropping nature shots. Some great cinematography does not a good film make, however, and Walter Mitty is no exception.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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Gangster Squad Review

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Welcome to the post-New Years cinematic dearth, when many people are looking for a convenient way to relieve stress, no doubt after having been subjected to WAY too much ‘family time.’ It is in this social climate that the therapeutic powers of Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad may be welcomed with open arms.

Featuring the considerable talents of Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and Sean Penn, Gangster Squad, in many ways, was already sure of its success before filming ever began. By that, I mean I’m almost certain that more attention was deliberately given to action sequences than to character development, and Fleischer knew that we would still go see the movie anyway. And indeed, there is something undeniably cathartic about watching Josh Brolin (who is apparently an absolute bear of a man) as Sgt. John O’Mara beat the ever-loving stupid out of various flavors of thug with his bare (bear) hands. Likewise, the sight of Ryan Gosling in a three piece suit holding a shotgun might make many people, including myself, weak at the knees, but I simultaneously can’t help but feel that there’s a kind of underlying hollowness to it all.

Set in a beautifully stylized depiction of 1940’s Los Angeles, Gangster Squad incorporates outstanding density and attention to detail to create a surprisingly immersive experience. Expertly paced, action sequences are nicely varied with character building, and the soundtrack was filled with all the 1940‘s splendor that you could ask for. You could’t help but smile as lovable, semi-crooked cop Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Gosling) put the moves on Cohen’s main squeeze, Grace Faraday (Stone). Then, unfortunately, you frown again as their relationship drifts towards the arbitrary and what was supposed to be a powerful moment passes by, almost without emotionally registering.

Inconsistencies in plot can generally be overlooked, although some niggling doubts remain. For example, why is it established early on that Jack O’Mara (Brolin) is supposed to be an expert in guerrilla warfare while he consistently attempts foolhardy, not to mention suicidal, frontal assaults on formidably armed enemy hideouts? In reality, Wooters seems to be the real brains of the operation while everyone else is along for the ride.

Thematically unchallenging, the essential conflict revolves around the fight between good versus evil, with only vague stabs in the direction of more complex subjects, such as the ethics behind it all. An interesting rift between O’Mara and his wife is ripe for development, involving his professional duty versus his familial duty, but in the end nothing really comes of it.

Gangster Squad uses the plot device that I will henceforth refer to as “fellowship-of-the-ring syndrome,” the employment of which involves the assemblage of a team of various ‘specialists’ to help combat some otherwise unstoppable evil. This time around, that evil comes in the form of MIckey Cohen (Penn) and his rapidly expanding criminal empire. The problem often times with the use of fellowship-of-the-ring syndrome is that the introduction of so many central characters naturally means less thorough characterization for each. I got out a kick out of the inclusion of the blatantly token Latino character who quite literally is included into the ‘gangster squad’ because no one knows what else to do with him, as well as the only slightly less token black character, both of whom were presumably included merely to represent a nice spectrum of diversity. My real problem, strangely enough, was with the characterization of Cohen. I heard another critic refer to his character as more of a Batman villain rather than an actual person, and I wholeheartedly agree. Penn no doubt did the best he could with the material he was given, but I was nevertheless disappointed because he was forced to play a caricature rather than a character, and his talent was squandered, as fans of Milk, Carlito’s Way, or Dead Man Walking can attest.

In the end, Gangster Squad is a fast paced, visceral celebration of boyish, fantasy gangster-violence. Overall it works, considering what it’s actually trying to accomplish and I certainly enjoyed watching beautiful people fight to save what they loved amid a beautiful backdrop. Characterization leaves something to be desired, but the action compensates, as it should.

Director Ruben Fleischer won some good will with Zombieland (2009) and almost immediately lost it again with 30 Minutes or Less (2011). Fleischer probably has a long career in front of him and, come what may, I look forward to seeing more of his work. I say remain cautiously optimistic for the future.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Note: As you may or may not be aware, after the Aurora massacre, a scene in the film was cut depicting the ‘gangster squad’ shooting up a movie theater. The ethics behind this choice are interesting, and there’s really no right answer as to whether or not it should have remained. We’d love to hear your comments on the subject.