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Entries in Ben Stiller (3)

Tuesday
Dec242013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

It’s hard to watch a movie with a lot of pretense. When you watch one that has really fooled itself into thinking it’s something special when you know full well that it’s not, it brings forth a peculiar kind of embarrassment. You start to feel bad for the filmmakers because their expected feedback is not going to match the feedback they actually receive. Such is the case with Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” an adaptation of James Thurber’s 1939 short story of the same name (which was previously adapted to film in 1947 with better results). It’s still a movie that is easy to enjoy, but it’s far from the poignant tale Stiller undoubtedly wanted to tell.

The film follows our titular protagonist, Walter Mitty (Stiller), a man who lives many different lives: the one that is real and the ones in his head. He’s a fantasizer and is known to zone out at random points in his days, heading off on grand adventures that allow him to life and feel how he wants to. In real life, his day-to-day is decidedly humdrum working as a negative asset manager for Life magazine that the new management is going to turn into an online exclusive publication. This means many folks are going to be losing their jobs, though they don’t know who. His job is already up in the air, but when he can’t find one photo that renowned photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), sends in, the one he claims is the absolute best photo he’s ever taken and should be the cover for the final issue, Walter decides to take action. He doesn’t know where Sean is, but he nevertheless hops on a plane and follows his only lead to find him.

Of course, in true Hollywood storytelling fashion, his motivation stems not from his desire to keep his job, but from his pretty co-worker crush, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), who urges him to become more adventurous. Their relationship is smooth and easy to watch, if a bit frustrating. Cheryl clearly has an affection for Walter, so his timidity comes off as forced, which is a criticism that is indicative of the film as a whole. The film isn’t as funny as it thinks it is nor as imaginative as it wants to be, as laughs come infrequently and the imagination on display fails to captivate.

Nevertheless, part of the fun of the film comes from the mind game it plays: are these grand adventures we’re witnessing real or are they simply something that is playing out in Walter’s mind? When Walter brings home a longboard he got in Iceland to give to Cheryl’s kid, is there a chance that it’s really just something he bought down the street at a local skate shop? The problem is that if it’s real, it’s a bit bland and if it’s in his head, it’s lacking the excitement and imagination that was so prevalent in the film’s opening moments.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” has an inspiring message of living your life and simply going for it, whatever that “it” may be, but it’s surprisingly thin for a movie so singularly focused on it. Furthermore, the blatant product placement does everything it can to obscure that message. When Walter calls Cheryl from Iceland and he tells her he’s in a Papa John’s, she doesn’t express her disbelief that he actually took the initiative to do something spontaneous. She just talks about her amazement that they have a Papa John’s in Iceland. “They have those there?” she says. Moments like these are distracting and insulting inclusions that detract a significant amount of charm from the overall product.

But even with all the complaints, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” isn’t a bad movie. It’s merely a lackluster one, one that receives more criticisms than praises only because the final result is such a letdown from the promising idea. It still has a good amount of heart to it, particularly from the delightful Wiig who somehow manages to create an interesting and empathetic character out of thin material, but “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is just missing that extra, unexplainable quality that real special movies have.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty receives 3/5

Friday
Jul272012

The Watch

The idea of a comedy centered on a neighborhood watch group isn’t a bad one. Some wild and unpredictable things can happen in a small town on a quiet night, but a premise alone is not enough to sustain a film. Despite a mostly likable cast of actors, this week’s newest film, The Watch, is hopelessly unfunny. It struggles to gain even the slightest bit of momentum, a strange problem in a movie that amps up the unpredictability by throwing invading aliens hell bent on destroying Earth into the mix. The film is only 98 minutes long, but it feels at least double that. It’s a waste of time and talent, both in front of and behind the camera (at least in terms of writing) and it’s sure to be one of the lamest and flattest comedies of the year.

Evan (Ben Stiller) is a nice guy. He’s active in his community and forms a number of groups to better it. He’s also the general manager of the local Costco, a job not many people would find fulfilling, but one that he adores with all his heart. He’s ever the optimist and loves those around him, but one night, his overnight security guard is murdered. Determined to get to the bottom of it, he forms a neighborhood watch with local thrill seekers Bob (Vince Vaughn), Franklin (Jonah Hill) and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade). They quickly discover that the murderer isn’t human, however, and that an alien race has landed on their planet that intends to wipe them out. Despite the danger, the men vow to stop that from happening.

The Watch does some things you expect and some things you don’t, but it does nearly all of them wrong. For example, in the film, Jonah Hill plays a toughened wanna-be cop, one that has no problem eyeing people down and whipping out his switchblade. He charges headfirst into battle unafraid of the consequences. This goes against our created perception of who this person is as an actor, but the problem is Hill can’t pull this type of roll off. He’s at his best when he’s vulnerable, nerdy and outspoken, not acting like he’s tougher than tough. Vaughn, on the other hand, essentially plays himself. He’s still obnoxious, crude and loud (does he really need to yell every line?) and he overpowers everyone else in the film, especially poor Richard Ayoade, who is given hardly a line to speak at all for the first half of the film and is mostly relegated to sitting their prettily while the rest of the cast plays off each other. Vaughn’s shtick has become tiresome, wearing out its welcome sometime around when the credits for Wedding Crashers ended. He hasn’t had a hit (or even a decent movie) in at least six years and there’s a reason for that. The man needs to switch things up a bit.

Vaughn needed to go against typecast and Hill needed to remain the same. This is just one example of the film having the right idea, but then ignoring it and doing the exact opposite. It correctly puts the group into some precarious situations, but it telegraphs them so far in advance that they’re hardly a surprise when they finally roll around. One of these scenes revolves around a new neighbor who acts suspiciously and may or may not be an alien, but his mannerisms are so sexual that what’s really going on in his basement is obvious. The late movie twist is similarly transparent, but it’s not its predictability that’s the problem; it’s that a certain character’s actions and motivations are called into question once it happens. There’s no real reason behind any of what happens. It just coasts along straining for jokes, never really grabbing any, and then it ends.

But it doesn’t end before a giant action scene so reminiscent of James Cameron’s 1986 sequel Aliens that I’m a little surprised it didn’t reference it. The only thing that separates this alien action scene from others is where the aliens’ weak spot is (I’ll give you one guess), but such immaturity is not inherently funny. After watching this dreck, you’d be surprised if anyone involved in its making has even heard the word “funny.” I’m so vehemently against this brain killing film that I have no qualms telling you to skip it, though the product placement is so egregious, it probably won’t matter. In what amounts to essentially a cinematic fellation of the wholesale store, Costco could have conceivably covered the film’s entire budget. It will most likely be a success, but nevertheless, comedies like this are not okay. Lazy, dull and stupid only begin to describe it. Most real life neighborhood watches are uneventful and boring, but it’s hard to imagine any are more boring than sitting through The Watch.

The Watch receives 0.5/5

Friday
Nov042011

Tower Heist

Movies are such an inconsistent thing. Some are great, some not so much. Some end up surprising you while the quality of others can be deduced simply by watching trailers. Then there are those that are forgotten as soon as you walk out of the theater. Director Brett Ratner’s new film, Tower Heist, is definitely a member of the latter breed. It’s not a particularly bad film, but it’s certainly nothing worthy of praise. It moves, it makes sounds, the credits roll and it’s gone.

The plot follows the employees of a high-rise building, where its tenants expect 24 hour assistance, 7 days a week. There’s Josh (Ben Stiller), the building manager, Charlie (Casey Affleck), Josh’s brother-in-law, Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), a newly bankrupt Wall Street businessman, Enrique (Michael Peña), a new employee whose only previous work experience is at Burger King, and Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe), a cleaning maid. All of them have given their hard earned money to their boss, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), and trusted him to invest it wisely for them. However, they quickly realize they’ve been the victims of a Ponzi scheme and have lost their money, putting them all in dire financial situations. Deciding to take matters into their own hands, they partner with Slide (Eddie Murphy), a man with expertise in thievery, to steal Shaw’s fortune.

In what is essentially Rush Hour meets Ocean’s Eleven, Tower Heist is nothing more than a mild pleasantry, which, in this cinematic day and age, is both above average and not enough. It has a few good jokes and it attempts to tap into the economic woes many Americans are feeling today, though it’s not so much a smart deliberation on the 2008 collapse as it is an economic revenge fantasy, but at least it’s relatable. What this movie does so well is flip the real world on its head and bring to justice those who have gained from the suffering of others. It creates an ugly man, seemingly gentle on the surface, but a monster underneath, and puts him in his place. And it does it all with a smile. It doesn’t make any assessment on the current situation; it only uses it as a tool for over-the-top shenanigans.

And over-the-top does it get. This thing gets so crazy, it could be argued it’s more of an economic revenge fantasy than last week’s similarly themed sci-fi fantasy, In Time. The ending sequence is so ludicrous it’s hard to take seriously, but that’s precisely the point. If In Time dissected the current financial situation with political statements and an allegorical narrative, Tower Heist is pure fluff. It’s for those who aren’t aware of the specifics of how we got to where we are, but know they should be angry at someone. A thinking person’s movie this isn’t, but that’s not to say the silly approach to such a serious issue isn’t welcome all the same.

Despite its intention to be simple fun, the heist depicted in the back half of the film is only moderately interesting. It’s not carried out with precision like in other heist movies, but rather in the way one can only assume the script was written: without a plan and in haste. It’s pulled through, however, thanks to its talented and diversified cast. It’s fun watching Eddie Murphy finally let loose again after hiding behind so many fat suits and subduing himself with wretched family comedies. In this movie, as mediocre as it is, he reminds us why we loved him so much all those years ago. The rest of the cast is good as well, though Ben Stiller’s on-again, off-again New York accent is distracting to the point of amateurism. Why an actor who has been around for so long fell into such an obvious trap is beyond me, but he nevertheless does what he can. The problem is there just isn’t much for him (or anyone else) to do that doesn’t involve outlandish situations and helpful narrative coincidences. Tower Heist is diverting fun while it lasts, but it’s not funny enough, smart enough or exciting enough to be anything more.

Tower Heist receives 3/5