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The most remotely interesting thing about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the new Ben Stiller comedy based (very, very, very loosely) on James Thurber's famous short story, is that it features an extended gag built entirely around Benjamin Button. Remember that? The movie where Brad Pitt was aging backwards? Well, Mitty is hoping you do, because that's all there is to the joke: "Heh. I remember that. That was weird." It's a not particularly funny joke in a bizarrely anti-humorous "comedy," but the strange specificity of it (and the question of who the hell thought "Remember Benjamin Button?" would be an automatic laugh riot) at least woke me up for a minute.

Thurber's original 1939 story might be the ur-text of the 20th Century "Lovable Loser" trope. The setup: A bored man is pulled along on a dull outing by his wife and escapes from the tedium of the day by slipping into daydreams of heroic fantasy (a master surgeon, a brilliant prosecutor, a fighter pilot, etc) jumping-off from mundane events in reality. It's not so much a plot as it is an observance of character, and you can probably draw a straight line from Mitty and his daydreams to the archetypal sadsack "sitcom guys" (think Ralph Kramden and his get-rich-quick schemes) all the way up through Family Guy's Peter Griffin and his context-bucking cutaway gags.

It's no accident that I mention Family Guy, either - the film's concept of "daydreams" has much more in common with those aforementioned cutaways than it does anything in Thurber's story. In the film, Stiller's Walter Mitty is a schlub whose boring existence is a job managing the negative (as in photographs) department at Life Magazine - which, this being a decade into the era of digital photos, means he's mostly the middle man for Sean Penn as a globetrotting adventurer/photojournalist who's so cool that of course he still shoots on film. The magazine is in the process of being taken over by a corporate interest whose agent (Adam Scott) plans to strip-down and streamline Life into a website, meaning that the next issue published will be (literally) The End of Life as We Know It. Subtlety is not this movie's strong suit.

Penn has sent a roll of film which contains a single shot that he claims will be perfect for the magazine's final cover, but the numbered negative appears to be missing. Hoping to secure his place in the new Life paradigm, Walter sets out to find the missing shot; which soon means tracking down Penn's famously grid-averse badass on his own. Fortunately, Walter's schedule is pretty wide open: The only other thing he has going on is appearing in commercials for E-Harmony.

I'm not even kidding - the second major subplot of this movie is Walter's bad luck in love, and it's visualized through a series of phone conversations with the famous dating site's customer service rep (Patton Oswalt) which play out as little more than an explanation of how the site works and an advertisement for how sophisticated their matching-algorithm is (to say nothing of their super-dedicated customer support staff!) This is the most bizarrely blatant bit of product placement (paid or not) that I can think of having seen in a modern movie... and I'm including the movies that actually were based on toy commercials.

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