The Rise & Rise of Megan Ellison
It’s troubling when everyone thinks something is going to be amazing and then it fails to meet that expectation. You want to believe that quality is coming your way until you sit down, watch and realize that it just didn’t work. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of those films. There is no absence of truth in its message but the execution is incoherent and distracting. The film goes back and forth between daydream and reality. Walter, who has a habit of zoning out, wants to live a life bigger than the small one he is currently resigned to. All he has to treasure are his fantasies, their buoyancy allowing him to live a boring life while also living his dreams. The problem, however, is that the film cannot decide what it wants, whether it be fantasy or reality. The film must happen but we don’t know what it wants to happen. There must be a momentum otherwise what is there to hold onto? The whimsicality of the film almost holds it back – it’s drowning in it – and at times, gives off a cloying, sentimental feeling that you can’t shrug off. What is supposed to be genuine comes off as something meticulously crafted to pose as genuine, but in the end is not.
The bizarre prelude to Mitty’s release was the premature praise it garnered. Many claimed it would be in the Best Picture category without a doubt. That nomination, though, never came – and none others. What went wrong? The packaging of the film was, in a word, misleading. The fantasy elements were downplayed, the story was up-played, and Ben Stiller’s veteran status as both talented actor, director and overall movie man offers a confidence not always given. It simply wasn’t enough to bolster a mismatch of the extraordinary and mundane Mitty is. There is no constant, but rather a switch off between his dreams and daily life. There doesn’t seem to be any need for a plot, especially when the film attempts to dazzle us with now-and-then special effects. It’s a big, loud jukebox of noise and imagery. They may wow our eyes but our minds are skeptical quickly. Is this all there is? Where are we going? Are we going anywhere? Or are we stranded in Walter Mitty’s dream field, forced to play out his bucket list but not really caring about his journey. If the message is do your dreams, the film spends an awful lot of time on dream and little on doing. Its lesson doesn’t come together until the very end. Seems obvious for that lesson to come at the end, but oh what a short lesson it is, stapled to the film’s conclusion as if an afterthought, a necessary moral added for need and less for want.
You can’t blame The Secret Life of Walter Mitty for lack of trying. It’s important to consider the origin of Walter Mitty. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was a short story published by the New Yorker in 1939. Instead of the frenetic barrage of unreal and real seen in the 2013 film, Mitty experiences five fantasy events inspired by his surroundings on a boring day. Mitty and his wife drive into a small town in Connecticut to do simple errands. The word ’mittyesque’ entered the English language shortly thereafter the publication of the story. Such a word refers to someone stuck, even immobilized by their daydreams. They want to be the hero and they fantasize about it so much that they start to believe the lie. The ironic twist is that mittyesque can often relate to someone that is an ineffectual faker, making themselves seem more noble than they actually are. None of these nuances are present in the Stiller film. The plot ignores the original story too much. Mitty needs that private brush with the outlandish triggered by the things and places he sees while on the ordinary. The Stiller story is erratic and tries too hard to impress. A lot of it seems to be visuals unmindful of substance. None of it seems necessity to the plot. We get your daydream, Walter. Now what are you going to do about it? The truth is you almost have to wait till the end of two hours to find out. Even then, it isn’t satisfying when you get to that message Stiller took so long to convey. There is nothing original about a film that fancies itself original but doesn’t live up to the adjective. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty feels like a vanity project. Stiller hijacks a thoughtful story and turns it into an effects show with casual, uninvested development in character and story. A story so bent on being genuine but misses the mark.
Is it a bad thing when we go to the movies to see a different dimension but are disappointed when there’s no reality? It would seem we go to the movies to leave reality. But what good is a story without some life in it? Life we know. If you stay stuck in the dreamworld, everything seems reasonless and without meaning. You need a balance. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a confused, beautiful mess that doesn’t live up to its hype. We all straddle two worlds – but we want someone who knows which one they want, and then watch them go for it. For a story, that’s significant. Pick a world and tell us to go there with you.
When at the theatre, you will meet people without meeting people. Depending on where you sit, you may see some reactions and wonder why you laughed but no one else did. It’s that uncanny absorption, knowing people without knowing them. You can tell what they like, what they don’t like, what they respond to, but you will never know their name. That’s the communal aspect of movies. Strangers together in the dark feeling human but not knowing any of the humans around them. I had a chance encounter with one of these strangers while drying my hands in the ladies restroom. A woman, middle aged applying a ghastly maroon lipstick talked trash about Her. She said she didn’t like virtual reality. Unsolicited, the woman notices me with the paper towels in the corner. She asked, did you just see that movie? Her? I responded, why yes. I quite liked it. I didn’t like it, she said. I don’t get that virtual reality stuff. I asked if she thought it said anything about society. She leaned and whispered yea, that society stinks. As I threw away the towels I added yes, society stinks, but it’s important to remind people why it stinks. She smiled, closing her lipstick and said “I’ll give you that.”
As we age, we look back on the past with an almost rosy nostalgia. Why not remember a simpler time as better? At least it’s always simpler than the future. We like to go where our happy memories live. The future seems too complicated, a sterile and haughty newcomer we aren’t sure we like the older we get. This woman was greyed with indifference toward these new innovations. Yet I knew what she was saying. What was human about Her? The whole film is a man interacting with a computer. There are few genuine flesh and blood interactions spotted in between. You never see Samantha’s face (the operating system is named Samantha), simply because she has none. She doesn’t have a body, either. So how can you love something that doesn’t have a body? How can you love something that doesn’t breath like you do? How can you feel something that doesn’t feel you back? We can love a top because it makes us look nice, or bungee jumping cause it makes our hearts beat fast, but can you love a computer for all the attributes a human has?
Somehow, it works, and with cruel poetry. Her makes you feel an uneasiness of familiarity. The world the protagonist lives is a world much like our own only hyperbolized into an impossible but all too explainable future. People walk around talking to their headsets as if they are in conversation with another person. It’s that terrible feeling we have when we walk into a cafe where everyone is staring at their laptops (not even their coffee!) and certainly not one another. What’s human about that? Maybe we aren’t human anymore. But maybe that’s what Her is trying to tell us. Has our technology turned us into what it is? If so, what’s so bad about falling in love with someone who is, in all their glory and functionality, an information system. A smart box. But a human smart box. Nonetheless, with wires instead of veins. Unless, of course, she’s wireless.
Her has a pathos we don’t see much of in the world of explosions and excessive reboots/remakes/sequels. Spike Jonze is good with the beauty float. The film is glossy but betrays its gloss with that feeling that’s detached from its own pretty imagery. For a film about the relationship between a man and his computer, it is a remarkably human story. But this is the new version of human. Or, perhaps, it shows how love can transcend form. Her - her – a pronoun reserved for women, namely human women, makes the title all much more than just a word. Samantha isn’t a her, but she seems like one. Why can’t she be one? What if we’ve invented a new human, one that is better than us but is still modeled after us? It can feel soon enough like us too. It can feel heartbreak and ecstasy. How can we fault the computers for these feelings when we are the reason they feel them? There is a new her. As irreconcilable as it seems in our hearts, we know we must move on into this uncertain future where human may not be human anymore. We are what we make. We feel love, and even with our objects, we want them to love us back.
Her makes you laugh, and at moments, wince with an understanding about what the film is really about. We are consumed by our things that think for us, our smart phones that are getting smarter than us. Still, what if something that wasn’t meant to feel, feels? And in this world increasingly dependent on machines, one has to wonder if we are draining our human-ness from life. Or maybe we are just creating new versions of human because we don’t feel connected to our current ones. Her tells us that this new human is possible, and although it may not be good, it is part of now. It’s a now we’ve made and a now we need to come to terms with.
There are some fears we never encounter in real life. And life, as even the young know it, is riddled with fears. Fear of speaking in front of a crowd, fear of proposing to the love of our life, and then the crown jewel fear – death. Some fears though we are lucky enough to never know. There is a handful of people who know a very unique fear that involves nothing of this earth. Those people have performed the rare feat of leaving the sky we know. As much as we want our minds to recreate this experience, it is one of those experiences that simply cannot be felt…without being felt. We can imagine the awe and with that, some impossible situations that could come from it. Space is overwhelming large. Try counting to infinity and you’ll get a sense of a universe that even as we speak is expanding its terrain. And it sure is dark. Punched with diamonds, those are the only lights that you can expect to guide you home. Alone in a foreign environment, it’s easy to develop an anxiety that’s tailor-made for space. We all try to approach the terrible with grace but we can’t fathom the worst of the worst until it happens. Gravity confirms our worst fear: we have no idea what real fear is, until we’ve been to space. Marooned, abandoned, lost, cut off from talk and worse, from humans. We are nervous creatures set against the fabric of space that doesn’t feel the fear like we do. The pain of being human comes back to us. The privilege of not feeling fear is a privilege humans don’t know at all.
Gravity is not a complicated story and this helps its fascination. Sandra Bullock is an astronaut with two others working on a spaceship. When an unexpected shower of rocks hit the ship, Bullock loses one shipmate and is cut off from earth with just George Clooney as company (oh, how horrible). The whole film unfolds in space. Sounds like a fun, CGI filled concept except the effects you see blend seemlessly into the frame as if they were never removed from reality. They look true, real and don’t distract with graphics. Perhaps that is why it’s so scary – because the CGI doesn’t allow us to take comfort in the fact that this is a movie. We feel comfort when we can tell ourselves that something scary isn’t real. But in this case, good luck doing so. For 90 minutes, you will know fear. And it will be unbelievably real. The realness of the effects not only helps the realness of the film, but makes the fear real. We all have one time or another where we’ve thought about being stranded in a place like space. Sometimes the greatest triumph of a film is to make the audience forget it’s a film. The terror becomes real, we own the terror, and we forget that we’re in the middle of a suspension of reality. That’s a good film alright, and Gravity achieves this.
There is something, also, whether you want to notice it or not, about the protagonist being a woman. Eventually Bullock is down to herself, forced to use all her faculties to navigate an impossible scenario. Women, notoriously portrayed as the fairer sex (read: the more sensitive, weaker sex) rarely have ambitions outside the shoe closet and dating pool on film. It’s worth watching Bullock use her smarts and dismiss her fear for the purpose of survival. This is the worst of the worst, a life or death meal. Bullock, regardless of her womanhood, or maybe in the face of her womanhood, becomes the everyman. We’re reminded of the headstrong Sigourney Weaver (who also knows her way around space), a woman who is seen as a woman but who can kick ass and take names when it comes down to it. If you won’t see Gravity for the story, see it for the effects. This film proves that not everything rides on a story. In fact, a film of this visual magnificence benefits from a smaller, simpler story. We are enveloped by the glory and terror that is space. It’s so terrifying real that you can’t love it away. Reaching over the big screen we know we’re there, or we’re closest to there that we’ll ever get (well, most of us anyway).
Lastly, as limited as it is, Gravity has a small cast that packs big punch. Besides my dad, everyone loves the charisma and back tongue Clooney possesses. Bullock, whose typical fare is comedies, really commands the screen with her desperation and autonomy. But if you go for the effects, you’ll stay for Bullock. She is the heroine but also the anti-heroine. She is the everywoman while being the everyman. She’s a human stuck in the middle of the most stark backdrop this world knows, or doesn’t know. Even when consumed by fear, she gives us hope that we can move in the face of an unimaginable adversity – and all without gravity. That sounds like a story with real gravity.
Some actors possess a charm that stays with them as they wander from role to role. Call it an indefinite charisma. Maybe its their personality we wonder as we watch them on screen. Do we imagine the real Paul Rudd as the nice guy that tells you your dog is cute and smiles for a fan photo? We want on some level to believe the heroes we watch are the heroes of real life, and if they are, they are humble about it. Rudd keeps this sort of candor and sweetness we want and hope for. We keep watching because we know we like him. He has a friendly kind of face, the everyman without being the everyman.
Our Idiot Brother knows this and milks it, but in an understandable and likable way. The script sort of wanders, not really meeting any sort of conflict as we expect with most story arcs. Still, there’s an endearing person in this idiot brother played by Rudd. The exchanges he has with people are open, imbued with that bearded hippie attitude. But he’s too lovable to be dismissed as a cliche. He works at a co-op with his girlfriend. He has a dog named Willie Nelson. He grows organic rhubarb and sells it at the farmer’s market. When a cop approaches him at his booth he asks if Rudd could sell him some pot. Hesitant at first, Rudd gives in as the cop professes he’s been under some stress. Just as money and organic produce exchange, handcuffs join Ned’s wrists together. Fooled again is this sweetheart drunk on kombucha! After he is released, his girlfriend admits to switching boyfriends (hint: it’s not Rudd anymore). Homeless and without Willie Nelson, Rudd bounces from sister to sister’s home. In the meanwhile, he interrupts the dynamic of their homes with his inability to lie. His honesty gets him in trouble. He’s free of pretense and can’t lie. He messes up situations. He’s our idiot brother. Still, there’s a sweetness to him. Rudd captures it with his charm as he smiles dumbly and somehow fixes the mess he fixes on each of his sisters. When he flees after they all call him out for messing up their lives, they soon realize they can’t live without this sweet idiot.
This film is definitely uneven, but its so sealed with the spirit of Rudd and and frank, funny dialogue. Also, the cast is impressive. Though Rashida Jones isn’t that convincing as a hipster lesbian (those glasses!), they still mesh together well in a misfit confetti sort of way. You look for some sort of plot but don’t need it to appreciate Our Idiot Brother. Rudd has the smile and dumb charm down. Emily Mortimer, Zooey Deschanel and Elizabeth Banks all play well-constructed sisters that give us variety. Even if you’re sisterless you can relate to them and the chaos of family. The more siblings, the higher the chance there will be an idiot one. But still, why are they the idiot? And why do we love them so much? It’s almost like this movie itself. It shouldn’t impress, and it doesn’t quite, but it’s sweet and we need the silly it has. Who doesn’t like a hippie with a heart (but showers, too)? Our Idiot Brother satisfies without ever feeling like it needs to. It makes you forfeit that demand of a great movie and instead, it’s just a good enough movie. Our Idiot Brother makes you laugh enough to not need it to be a masterpiece. But how good are our masterpieces? We should appreciate the smaller ones that lie in-between.