Walter Mitty: has Ben Stiller come of age?

walterroadApparently Ben Stiller has been trying to get The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to the screen for the best part of two decades. Something you notice as it unfolds, at least in terms of slightly odd events taking place. But then, the film is slightly odd. And I mean that in a good way. As Winona Ryder’s Lydia says in Beetlejuice, ‘Live people tend to ignore the strange and unusual, but then I myself am strange and unusual.’ Same could be said for Stiller, he does odd well.

Here he directs – and stars – in this film, based on a 1939 short story by James Thurber and last brought to screen in 1947 with Danny Kaye in the title role. In terms of the plot of this updated version, it’s a little hard to describe. Wikipedia gives it a go, calling it a ‘romantic adventure fantasy comedy drama’. You can imagine the studio having a meeting; ‘We didn’t leave any genres out did we? No? Good.’ I’m not complaining, it’s just a funny film to put in a box.

Essentially the story follows Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), a negative assets manager (processor of photos) who works for Life magazine. Walter is a dreamer and more than most people, walteroften zoning out of real life to imagine some fantastical adventure with the object of his affection, co-worker Cheryl (played with a real sweetness by Kristin Wiig). Life as a print publication – in the way of the modern world – is being phased out to become an online service. For the final issue, legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (enigmatically played by Sean Penn) sends Walter a negative to use for the final cover. Walter cannot find it and sets off on a journey to hunt Sean down to locate the photo – one which leads him on a path of self-discovery through Iceland, Greenland and the upper Himalayas of Afghanistan.

Phew! Epic right? No wonder it took Stiller so long to fully realise his vision. And realise it he does for this is a proper life-affirming film. I often cringe hearing that phrase but I think here it’s justified. In the first third when Stiller is setting up the plot, he gives Walter’s daydreams a real dollop of overblown Hollywood comedy cheese – classic Stiller you might say.

As the story progresses and Walter begins living life instead of just imagining it, his adventures – whilst fantastical – are very much real and the whiff of cheese and melodrama has completely vanished. TheSecretLifeofWalterMitty2013-Still3Indeed, in its place are scenes of real beauty; the sequences in Iceland and other places are lovingly shot and quite breathtaking.

In terms of the film’s tone, it’s interesting. With the offbeat characters Walter meets and its quirky ‘journey of self-discovery’ aesthetic, you wonder what this would have been like in the hands of directors like Wes Anderson or Alexander Payne? That said, let’s take nothing away from Stiller as a director – and indeed Stuart Dryburgh as cinematographer – this is shot in an assured, mature and majestic manner.

There are perhaps one or two too many lingering shots on Stiller’s face; looking progressively more rugged and handsome as he has more adventures, but that’s to be expected if you direct and star in your own movie I suppose. That aside, he largely convinces as buttoned-down Walter, learning to spread his wings, love life and take risks.

Ultimately, Walter Mitty is an upbeat, touching and tender tale, filled with genuine laughs that should leave you with a burning desire to locate your passport and live life to the fullest. It also – quite possibly – represents a new and exciting chapter in Stiller’s career – one worth watching with interest.

Ron Burgundy – how’s the legend holding up?

anchorman2Sequels. Comedy sequels no less. The hardest of all in the sequel kingdom. Do they ever work? Hmm… more often than not they don’t; at least not to the extent of the original. Casting your mind back for a second: it’s been almost ten years since the original Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy came out; a film which took many by surprise.

At the time Will Ferrell was on the rise. Most notably he’d done Old School and Elf, so you could argue that Anchorman – and character of Ron Burgundy – cemented his place in the modern-day comedy hall of legends. Also, now he’s a big star, it’s hard to imagine Steve Carell who, at the time, was even less well known. He had a part as, believe it or not, a co-anchor in Bruce Almighty, a year before Anchorman. Paul Rudd had been hard at work as a jobbing actor until his most notable role, a two-year stint in Friends. Similar to Carell, Rudd has gone from strength to strength in the years since becoming part of the San Diego news team.

So, in that respect, most of the cast were relative unknowns on the rise which lent to the comedy, in much the way The Hangover did a few years later. There was no pressure on the cast. We didn’t really know who these guys were as actors, or the characters they’d created.

Uneasy lies the crown

Perhaps that’s why it’s taken almost a decade for the legend of Ron Burgundy to continue – once you’ve captured lightning in a bottle, how do you manage it a second time? ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUESThis is especially hard with comedy. Audiences want more of the same, yet something new too. And critics are sitting, poised to pounce on the slightest whiff of a stale rehashed joke.

With that in mind I’m pleased to say, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is… not bad at all. They’ve tried to take the characters to places new. Indeed, the news team have all left the game when we pick the story up, with Ron living the good life with loving wife and co-anchor Veronica Corningstone. As you’d expect, things go quickly awry – largely Ron’s own doing of course.

So he looks to reform the old team as part of a groundbreaking new 24-hour news channel. This takes the characters into new territory and, compared to the original, it has something to say in terms of social commentary; how those in power should not be allowed to control the media and the nature of what constitutes well-researched news versus mere speculation.

Brick finds love

Before you panic, there’s still laughs aplenty. Ferrell, along with writer/director Adam McKay, tread a precarious but largely successful line in terms of running jokes from the first film and new material. In particular, Brick gets a bit of a love story with a female counterpart (brilliantly played by Kristen Wiig) that works well. On the flipside, some of the jokes – and scenes – feel forced, like Ferrell and McKay are trying too hard.

anchorman-blog-jpg_165129There’s also one or two moments where jokes grate, more in poor taste than anything else – high on the cringe scale. Happily, the zingers carry you through. Once you’ve seen this film, chances are the first thing you’ll be asked is, ‘Is it better than the original?’… well, no. But then, often, originals are favoured by most. Simply the fact they were original wins them points. But people do look back with a certain rose-tinted nostalgia; so judging a comedy sequel can be skewed in that sense.

So… in a roundabout way I’d say, whilst this isn’t as good as the original, it’s darn close. And that’s as much as any of us could hope for – which should mean, in Ron Burgundy’s world, his legend is still intact.