“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
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
, 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
.” 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
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,