“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” &
“August: Osage County
They both owe their origins to previous literature. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was a short story written by James Thurber that first appeared in “The New Yorker” magazine on March 18, 1939. That was just prior to the outbreak of World War II in Europe , so the world was quite different then. Daydreaming hasn’t changed that much, though. Remember in the comic strip “Peanuts,” when the dog Snoopy kept imagining himself as a World War I flying ace? There was even a pop song in the 1960’s celebrating Snoopy’s recurring fantasy. We love to daydream, and there’s something about daydreamers that invokes our affection.
Ben Stiller knows this, which is why he chose this project to be both Director and star. As viewers, we want to root for this character, even though he’s not particularly winsome. In fact, many times he forgets to be charming because he gets so wrapped up in his daydreams. The modern CGI technology, of course, allows us to see Walter Mitty’s fantasies on vivid display: crashing through windows and hurtling through the air and rescuing fair damsels in distress. Of course he is the hero of all his daydreams. And that’s really the primary problem with the movie. Ben Stiller has made himself the hero of his own story, and when it morphs from fantasy to real-life adventure, it’s still to fantastic to really be believable. And by his own admission, once he becomes an action hero, the daydreaming doesn’t preoccupy him so much any more, which essentially means that once he got the girl (Kristen Wiig) he lost his imagination. Pity.
Pity is notably absent from the melodrama “August: Osage County .” Nobody feels sorry for anybody. In fact, everybody is pretty much a selfish lout, spiteful and vindictive and constantly spewing venom. That may make the characters memorable, but hardly makes them likeable. This film began life as a stage play, and though the screenplay is adapted, the action still feels staged. As if the characters are like snipers in a shooting range, just standing around waiting their turn to take their potshots.
Meryl Streep plays Violet Weston, the family matriarch who enjoys constantly battling with everyone around her: her poet-husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), and her three daughters Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), Barbara (Julia Roberts), and Karen (Juliette Lewis). All of them are dysfunctional, also, and difficult to be around, and impossible to enjoy. Julia Roberts, especially, plays against her stereotypical movie role by portraying a character particularly foul-mouthed, nasty, and unsympathetic. But then, so is everybody else in this orgy of vindictiveness. The only humor is caustic, and the few laughs are sarcastic. It’s compelling in the same way as rubber-necking a car wreck: you find yourself looking for that cheap thrill of viewing wanton destruction. Yes, there are some powerful performances, including from the several secondary characters. But it’s as awkward a family gathering as you’ll never want to attend.
In fact, both films are awkward; “Mitty” because of the social inadequacies, and “August” because of….well, the social inadequacies. In “Mitty” the victory is turning daydreams into reality, and wishful thinking into a real romance; in “August” the victory is surviving the nightmare of a family reality with all the love snuffed out. “Mitty” is not as whimsical as it might have been, but “August” is so venomous that whimsy is banished. Which would you prefer watching?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas