Quintessence (Who knew?)
Starring Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig
Directed by Ben Stiller
Ben Stiller's latest offering as a director and actor has him tackling James Thurber's original story of a dreamer who goes on to better things, but in a radically, totally different, 21st Century incarnation. The finished film is an absolutely magical triumph, which, in the old cliche, will appeal to audiences of all ages. The audience I was with consisted of those all ages in question (15 to 75, I'd say), and they all sat in their seats as the end credits rolled. It's happening all over the place, I hear, (look at the message boards on IMDB, for example) and whether it was the music, or the impact of the film, it was quite remarkable not to have everyone streaming out of the auditorium the second the film fades to black. Personally, I think it was the film itself. It's easily one of the best films I've seen all year - oh, hang on, it's 2014 now, and I've only seen two films in the cinema - an interesting double bill, (about which to follow) - but I'm 100% sure that come the end of the year this will be in my Top Ten of the year - make that "one of the best films I've seen in in ages" It's funny (not much laugh-out-loud funny, although there are quite a few moments) but wry and amusing throughout, completely, but it passes the six-laugh-out loud-test with flying colours. What really stands tall this movie out is that it is truly inspiring. It makes you think, "what could I do to be a better person?" And for that reason, I absolutely loved it. I *loved* it. It made me feel proud to be myself and I wondered what I could do to be better. I had tears in my eyes as the credits rolled (although I guess this is not such a big thing - I cry at movies all the time nowadays). Be a better person. Simples.
The story centres, obviously, around the eponymous title-man, played by Stiller ,who works as the photo negative manager for "Life" magazine, and has done for 16 years. He's clearly hugely talented, imaginative, but stuck in a rut and wasted in his role. A great touch comes in the first scene, in which he tries to summon up the courage to send a "wink" to a lady on e-Harmony (other dating websites are available), but can't do so. He retreats from the table where his laptop sits, and disappears from focus. It's a brilliant moment which subtly shows us that Walter has no focus in his life. Frequently, and we see this, he disappears into fantasy-land whilst in the middle of talking to someone. His sister calls it his "zoning out". These scenes are great, and funny; there's a moment when he imagines diving off a train platform to rescue a dog from a burning building. There's a wonderful, extended scene where he has a massive, Avengers-style fight with an annoying executive from his company, spinning around and carving up the New York streets as they go toe to toe. As the film goes on though, and Walter becomes more focused, the fantasy scenes thin out, and it's all the better for zeroing in on his story. The McGuffin is thus: Walter has a big problem; Life's star photographer (a freelancer, Sean O'Connell, played by Sean Penn) has sent them a reel of pictures ("Sean still shoots on film. I respect that") but the key negative, which O'Connell says is the best one and rerecommends to be used for the cover of the final issue, is missing. So, Walter feels he has no choice but to go in search of the legendary lensman in order to find the picture. Brilliantly, as Walter gains focus on something, his fantasies more or less dry up. It gives the film a refreshed sense of purpose and believability as the craziness isn't going on...
What follows is a rollicking, but frustrating tour of Greenland, a fishing boat in the North Atlantic, Iceland, and ultimately the Himalayas as Walter closes in on Sean. Walter goes on search of the famous photographer constantly seeming to be one step behind his charge. This is the true driving force, and nature, for the film, and at times it feels like a travelogue! These scenes yield some of the standout moments of the picture. They have clearly filmed on location and actually gone to Iceland; the scenes shot there are stunning, capturing fully the vastness and beauty of these northern lands.The landscapes are *incredible* and amazingly well captured. It's utterly utterly beautiful. There's a fantastic scene where Mitty, drastically trying to keep up with Sean, jumps on a skateboard, bartered for from an Icelandic kid, and scoots down the road at high speed through mesmerising Icelandic mountains, unaware that a nearby volcano is about to erupt... To an amazing, driving soundtrack...<think ukulele, humming, and hand claps - I'm not doing it justice but it has to be heard> It's an exhilarating scene. I'd be surprised if this isn't nominated for Cinematography at this year's Oscars - it looks constantly FANTASTIC. From Icelandic landscapes, to volcano eruptions, to tranquil arctic seasets, it looks awesome. Lenser Stuart Dryburgh ASC can be mightily proud. All the locations scenes look fantastic and it's a credit to Stiller as Director, and all the powers that be, that they actually went on location to film these scenes instead of, say, green-screening Stiller beside a mountain. They are truly beautiful shots.
Of course the driving force of the movie is Walter's mission. He has to find Negative 25 (of the reel) and thus he has to find the photographer...Remarkably there is a beautiful, touching love story running parallel, in which Walter falls for co-worker Cheryl, played with suitably adorable restraint by Kristen Wiig. Their relationship is so natural and understated that one never believes it won't work out between them - despite the little murmur when she deletes her online profile and he believes she is back with her ex-husband. That's a running gag too - Walter works with her, but would rather give her a wink on e-Harmony than go and talk to her in real life..So he keeps getting calls from a worker for the site, constantly trying to help him update his pprofile . It's all too believable. It's unusually, uncannily natural though. They behave the way real people behave, instead of the way "movie people" behave. Cheryl helps him out on his quest, and becomes a new touchstone in his formerly drifting life...It's amazingly insightful peek into human behaviour and makes you want to know these characters more closely - and hug everyone you love. That, I think, is the real point of this movie. Life shouldn't be about the drudgery of the day-to-day job, as it is for so many. Life should be what you can do, if you try. A poignant moment comes when Walter finally tracks down Sean, and finds him waiting to capture a picture of a snow leopard (rarely seen), or ghost cat. "Beautiful things don't ask for attention", says Sean. When the animal finally appears, Sean doesn't even take the shot, he just looks on in wonder. Walter can't believe it, but Sean just says "stay in the moment".
Honestly, this film was not what I expected at all.... One normally associates Ben Stiller with slapstick comedies along the lines of the (both awesome) "Dodgeball" and "Zoolander". Having seen the trailers, which front-load the fantasy element, I was expecting essentially more of the same, and not at all prepared for the second half of the film. It's not so much a comedy, or even a romantic drama. Walter's story is one of inspiration, of a man who comes out of his shell and performs when it counts. It's a great drama about the need to do more (as we all do). It's a great film, about achieving your dreams at all costs. That Stiller is directing himself is all the more remarkable given that he is in almost every scene; and he turns in a fantastic performance as the self-doubting but eventually self-confident Walter. The music, as hinted, is fantastic. Many of the supporting actors, aside from Kristen Wiig, were unknown to me, although Adam Scott as an uppity executive was brilliantly funny ("Who looks good with a beard? Dumbledore. Not you!"), and Shirley MacLaine's role as Walter's mum was all too brief.
It's a change in tone for Ben Stiller though, a much more mature approach which is both incredibly moving and extrextremely accomplished. I'd highly advocate catching this in cinemas so you can appreciate the beautiful landscapes. This was a really satisfying film about which I'm still thinking... and thinking...-