Courtesy: 20th Century Fox/Samuel Goldwyn Pictures
More often than not, Hollywood’s seemingly undying hunger for prequels, sequels, and remakes has led to some of the movie industry’s worst movies in memory in recent years. However, the 2013 remake of the 1947 Danny Kaye classic The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has proven to be the rare exception to that rule. One part Death of a Salesman and one part Forrest Gump, this last movie of 2013 is also the year’s best. This is despite the fact that it is just one more on the industry’s ever-growing list of prequels, sequels, and remakes. The very first factor in the success of this updated story is its writing. Writer Steve Conrad has taken author James Thurber’s original story and updated it in a way that works even despite being changed around so much. Also to be taken into consideration is the acting of the cast. Veteran actress Shirley MacClaine (Downton Abbey), comedienne Kristen Wiig (SNL), and Adam Scott (Parks & Rec) each expertly carry out their roles and make the story all the richer. The same can also be said of surprise guest stars Patton Oswalt and Sean Penn. The last aspect of the movie to consider in its success is its cinematography. The scenes shot in Greenland and Iceland were beautiful to say the very least. The same can be said of so many other scenes that make up Walter’s fantasies and his real life adventures. That aspect comes together with the cast, its acting, and the general writing to make this movie one of the biggest surprises of 2013.
Writer Steve Conrad’s adaptation of author James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is not the first time that the story has been adapted to the big screen. Its first big screen adaptation was in 1947. Little changed from that story–penned by writers Ken Englund, Everett Freeman, and Philip Rapp–and this latest take on Thurber’s story. The one big difference between the two stories is that the original adaptation was a rom-com. Conrad’s update is more of a human drama that centers on overcoming the fear of life’s uncertainties and taking risks. Typically, making such a drastic change is a formula for disaster. But this case is a very rare exception to the rule. Somehow, Conrad has managed to make his story work. And he has managed to do so in so many ways. What he offers audiences in this adaptation is the story of a man that sets out to find a photograph, but ends up finding himself in the long run. It’s all brought on as Life magazine, the magazine he works for is preparing to release its very last print issue before it becomes an entirely online entity. This is another aspect of Conrad’s script that makes it work so well. That’s because it is such a real story element.
The use of Life magazine transitioning from a print outlet to an entirely online entity is a hugely useful tool to advance this story. That’s because of its realism. So many branches of the print media have transitioned mainly to an online presence in order to survive in the digital age. That transition makes for a lot of uncertainty in any number of individuals’ lives including the story’s lead character. It’s that uncertainty of the future that forces Walter to make his daydreams become reality. And Stiller’s take on Walter as he grows through his adventures serves to make the story all the richer.
Steve Conrad’s updated take on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is surprisingly enjoyable despite being an update on one of Hollywood’s classic movies. The human drama that makes up the story’s main plot does so much to make the story work. The same can be said of the acting of lead Ben Stiller and his cast mates. He makes his take on his character one that is entirely believable as Walter grows from a socially awkward wallflower type of figure to a more self-confident man. His isn’t the only portrayal that makes the story work, either. Surprise guest star Patton Oswalt is spot on as a tech rep with e-harmony. He interacts with Walter solely via phone throughout most of the story. Even over the phone, those moments make for so many laughs. Just as funnier is the reveal of Oswalt’s character late in the movie. His joke of what he thought Walter would look like compared to his own looks makes for one of so many classic moments throughout the story. Adam Scott plays the story’s antagonist, Ted Hendricks, that comes in to Life as a “cleaner” of sorts responsible for downsizing the magazine’s staff. He was just as much on spot in his role as the rest of the cast in its roles. He is a completely cold, despicable figure that cares only about his own advancement. He makes audiences cheer happily for Walter both when he confronts him in his daydream and for real later in the story. That’s the sign of an actor fully grasping his character and getting the job done. The same can be said of supporting actress Shirley MacClaine as Walter’s mom. She is Walter’s only real source of support among everyone around him. And one can feel the love that Walter’s mom has for him, too. Anyone that doesn’t laugh and smile at the pair’s personal moments have no heart. That ability of the cast to reach audiences on so many emotional levels is just as important as the script itself in this story’s success. The story’s success doesn’t end here, either. There is one more aspect of this movie that makes it successful. That aspect is the movie’s cinematography.
The cinematography of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is beyond belief. From Walter’s imaginary fight scenes with Ted to his real life adventure across Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan, the camera crews and editors went beyond the call of duty. The contrast of Walter set against the giant magazine covers that lined the halls of Life make for their own statement. That’s because as Walter runs past the covers, audiences see the figures on each cover turn to Walter’s face. It makes for a statement of his dreams potentially becoming reality. And in its own right, it is also a foreshadowing of sorts, not to reveal too much for those that haven’t yet seen. These are just some of the examples of the expert cinematography that is exhibited throughout the course of the story. There is much more for audiences to see for themselves. And they will indeed find so much when they watch this story for themselves. And together with its casting and writing, audiences will find so much to applaud in this movie; so much in fact that they will agree that despite being a reboot, it still proves to be 2013’s best new movie.
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