Contrary to what you may believe is true, few people sympathize with a victim of bullying. From a range of pitiful to sneer worthy, the majority of bystanders feel it’s a fault in you for being a target. Even if such people don’t look down on you, they certainly don’t want to be friends with someone picked on, nor do they root for you either. Walter Mitty is one such victim. Let’s head into The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and take a look…
Film critics ought to go into a film with an open mind, right? Well, I believe they should. I love going into a movie hailed as a real stinker and seeing if there is anything redeemable. Some films deserve their criticism and it’s really obvious why. The most disappointing ones are movies with great trailers, solid concepts and strong people behind the scenes with a lot of passion for the story and film-making. Movies such as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
While there were poor reviews for the most part, here’s one story lover prepared to decry the masses…if the movie merited it… By minute 5 (or maybe 7?) I saw a major flaw. It’s a classic Ben Stiller mistake too. (I rant about this problem all the time – story writers take note, we beg you!) This was quite sad to me because The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a rather well produced movie.
The cinematography was excellent, I particularly loved the out of focus background action shots (like the skateboard scene) used in well placed spots in the story. I adored the colors of the film; if I were to make a movie these would form my palette. Everything felt bright but not saturated; finding that balance is no easy task! The casting was spot on from Ben Stiller as Walter Mitty, to Kristen Wiig as his love interest, Cheryl Melhoff, to Sean Penn as photographer, Sean O’Connell.
The music was also a high point: unusual but noticeably complimenting the plot. I love when music literally enters the story and creates a moment. And in this moment, story and movie become one, shifting from a tale of fictional characters to one real people could inhabit. Good production is great but flimsy when there is still the story to consider.
Everyone who knows, knows the three act structure is very popular when writing screenplays. As far as story patterns go its supporters feel it’s a golden rule in good storytelling. Others believe acts are only usable or even necessary when there is to be an intermission of some sort, such as commercial breaks for television advertisements (which means a televised movie will have seven acts because there are seven commercial breaks). Irregardless of your feelings on the matter, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty uses an obvious and apparent three act story model.
Yup, the problems that lead to poor reviews are to be found in the story (and so easy to fix!) particularly with this three act story model.
THE FIRST ACT
How can a whole act be a problem? Well, it is the foundation of the entire story.
Right off the train station you find yourself really disliking…Walter Mitty. The main character. It’s not just that you hate him. It’s not a crime for the audience to hate the protagonist (though generally you do want to be rooting for them) but you do need to be able to have character sympathy. Simply stated, protagonist sympathy is when the audience understands the character and still empathizes with them.
That first part seems easy enough, the problem is the second part is rather hard to pin down. What makes the audience empathize with a character? More importantly for Walter Mitty what makes us not empathize with his character?
Well pretty much the entire first act.
The first failure is major – almost each and every one of the dream sequences. Instead of being touching, imaginative, funny or outrageous they were sad and cringe-worthy. I lay this at the feet of the poor humor. It did not go with the character or the story. Walter Mitty is already a victim. When one’s humor is about making fun of one’s self it’s in rather poor taste to also add yourself as another bully making fun. It makes bystanders like the audience uncomfortable as they can neither like nor dislike the character. Hence the lack of character sympathy. Once people see you as a victim it is quite hard to change their opinion of you.
With the right dream sequence we would have started to root for him as a lovable loser. It would have had to balance out the bullying side of Mitty, but then we could have overlooked his passivity and unwillingness to act as a symptom instead of just a lack of character. Really there was only one villain in this movie. The real Mitty was constantly having his dignity stripped from him. If you put yourself in movie Mitty’s place you would find yourself acting, we don’t understand why he doesn’t act. Yet if you put yourself in story Mitty’s place we are shown how he can’t act, each and every time he goes to act there is another person there stripping him down to size.
While story Mitty is not a root worthy character we do have character sympathy for him and want to see if he can learn to act, even as we know he won’t. Movie Mitty is just pathetic and we aren’t charmed by The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and his equally pathetic dreams.
STAND ALONE ACTS
The second act pretty much ignored the Walter Mitty they introduced in Act I and we started to see a character we could root for. He had motivation to act and somehow found the courage to move forward. As he’d never made such a mistake as to lose a negative before I took it as professional ethics that propelled him, backed with the idea it might very well impress his love interest, Cheryl.
Act II had this sense of reality and growth since he was chasing the photographer, Sean O’Connell. This was the best act of the movie story wise as it centered around the protagonist. It had to do with his personal motivation, a motivation that had stood him in good stead all these years working at Life (so I assume as they neglected to show us this worthy work ethic in Act I!) We come into Act III with a disappointed Mitty who has decided to confront Sean after his faith in him has been proven unsuccessful. His motivation has turned tables and picked up the love interest angle. Here he’d acted like the photographer but it came to nothing. Now he just wants to know how he lost the damn negative.
Act III had a frantic clean-up/tie-up the loose ends feel to it. The shining moment is really meeting Sean O’Connell. I’ve never understood the whole ‘heart Sean Penn’ thing movie fans have going on but I understood from this role. Penn imbued, in that single moment, the power of what Mitty had lost by casting off Sean O’Connell’s faith in him. I finally got the zen chic vibe that Penn is known so well for. This moment directly supports the climax of the movie and makes Act III a success as well. (Spoiler!!!!!) That photo that he lost…yup he finds it and it’s the final cover: the quintessence of Life.
THE VAGARIES OF TIMING
It’s a great climax as we see that his life wasn’t a waste. It’s a true tribute to his journey. The second and third acts really were good if only the tone had been cohesified. Unfortunately, the flip back and forth between the dual motivations from Act II to Act III made each act stand alone. We focused on work, then on love when we needed a better balance. A solid Act I would have gone a long way to providing the bond these better acts needed to make a whole story.
Instead of trying to make movie Mitty the same as story Mitty we should have seen that movie Mitty wanted to act. In fact, he works up the courage (through successful dream sequences) to act, and finds someone else has already beaten him to it. In other words he lacks timing. Many times our hearts are in the game, we just aren’t coming out at the right time. When the negative goes missing Walter Mitty is the only one who can act. He’s the only one who even cares! Now’s the right moment. By developing the dream sequences to support the Act II and III Walter Mitty we would have buckled our seat belts in anticipation!
The audience needs to know why a protagonist is worthy of their attention. Pretty visuals sure helps matters, but are rather empty when the story itself is cobbled together. If an event in the story doesn’t shed light on the why of a character it needs to be reworked and better yet re-imagined. I wanted to champion this movie…but can’t. The three act story model is a great technique when they work together to tell the story…that wasn’t the case in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.