The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller (2013)
Director and actor Ben Stiller, or possibly ‘the world’s biggest comedic movie star’ is the protagonist of his latest visually stunning and good-humoured comedy with nuances of the grotesque The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Long established representative of the Hollywood film industry, criticised for its redundant stale performances mingled with age-old one-liners, Ben Stiller seems to pinpoint the urge to steer from the ‘pathetic’ Hollywood comedies he took part in in recent years that honed his public persona and affected his reputation within the industry. Through his Walter Mitty, he explores, as far as Hollywood is concerned, ‘path-breaking’ narratives and issues around gender performativity, attempting to re-establish his position within the mainstream film industry.
Walter is a put-upon middle-aged corporate man that works as photo library runner at TIME Magazine in the city of New York, unlucky in love as much as in life, fiercely but comically submitted by his co-workers and unable to get a grasp of his “dignity”. He is a man who struggles to come to terms with life plans, his crush on his colleague Cheryl Melhoff (delightfully and remarkably played by Kristen Wiig). Most interestingly, he seems to find satisfaction only in ‘zoning out’ and on dealing with photojournalist Sean O’ Connell (Sean Penn), whom he has never met in their 16 year-long work relationship. Although hints of homosexual pleasure and bonding that goes beyond ideas of brotherhood, the film successfully strives to steer homosexual readings to the quest for personal dignity, which, seemingly resides in Walter’s romantic satisfaction despite the odds of not meeting social behavioural expectations that distract him from appreciating life for what it is, being looked on down by everyone he encounters and whom he nurtures the slightest interest in.
When Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) is called upon to direct the publication of TIME’s final issue, Walter is commissioned to provide Ted with TIME’s cover, Sean O’ Connell’s photograph that is, expectedly, missing from Walter’s photo library. He embarks on a journey to Greenland to find Sean, which turns out to be a unique spectacular adventure that takes Walter to face the open sea and sharks, mountain tops and stifling hikes. When he finds himself alone, we, as viewers, are able to witness a shift from Walter’s detachment from life and inability to actively engage with it embodied by his constant zoning out and experiencing day dreams, to the embrace of adventure and real-life action. In fact, the viewers is unsure whether the figure of Sean O’Connel really exists in the film’s universe or it is just a product of Walter’s imagination, the pawn that was missing in Walter’s dissatisfying existence to overturn and re-affirm control over his life. According to Tad Friend, Walter Mitty’s obsession with re-affirmation and life empowerment is strictly correlate to Ben Stiller’s ‘dream- of being someone different’.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty seems to be an attempt to shape, if not change, Ben Stiller image. He is described as an ‘audience magnet’, perfectly embodying Hollywood’s concept of star, one ‘who can dependably get a film “open” – that is, can lure people to see it on opening weekend.’ In this sense, Stiller’s previous roles in, to name a few, There’s Something About Mary, Along Came Polly, Duplex, Dodgeball, Meet the Frockers and Night at the Museum and directorial efforts Zoolander and Tropic Thunder contributed to build a public image that is so well established to brand and market the films he stars on or produces. The image of Ben Stiller is strictly related to comical, goofy, grotesque, extravagant, put-upon and submitted dissatisfied characters, or as Friend puts it, he represents ‘the put-upon Everyman striving for dignity as the mayhem escalates.’ Arguably, the viewer find comfort in laughing at Stiller’s disgraces and extravagances, making him an outlet for people’s dissatisfaction and urges to escape ordinary day-to-day life. In this sense, Ben Stiller can be seen as the example of the complexity of stars and the impact of stardom on popular consciousness, and, the often overlooked seeming preoccupation of the star him/her-self and the limitation this social construction puts to personal and creative expression.
The image of the star is, and should be studied as, a ‘cluster- of signs, as system of signifiers or texts that communicate meaning to a spectator’, as Jeremy G. Butler states in The Star System and Hollywood, underpinning the cultural relevance of stars within popular culture and consciousness, their seemingly innate power to dictate an example for people to follow, the ultimate goal of people’s trivial lives. While Ben Stiller is highly requested to star in films produced by the biggest film production companies such as 20th Century Fox, DreamWorks and Warner Bros because of its universal popularity that ensures millions at the box office, studios are ‘leery of Stiller as a director’, as it represents a financial risk. In this regard, ‘star texts also exist within a particular economic, ideological and psychological contexts’, they are the result of an economy and society that value money over creativity and that are ready to shadow one person’s talent and passion for economic gain and universal social status.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is innovative as a Hollywood production for its depiction of unconventional maleness and encouraging the viewer to ponder on the notion of gender performance and for Walter’s growth attained through adventure and self-expression regardless of social status and unconventional behaviour. On the flipside, it fails to progressively address issues revolving around stardom, by presenting another goofy put-upon character in the wake of Ben Stiller’s previous performances and reassuring major Hollywood studios that Ben Stiller is still out there, in the shape of the deadbeat underdog who is relentlessly looking to redeem himself and fight against the odds of society, defined by gross-out comedies that work as shelters to the boredom of everyday life of the viewer.