The Secret Life of Walter Mitty came out of nowhere and is most likely here to stay. I first saw the trailer for this Ben Stiller comedic drama (or dramatic comedy perhaps?) before watching The Desolation of Smaug, and the unique mix of stunning visuals, inspiring music, and humor intrigued me if nothing else. Never being one for the mainstream comedy stars of today, I filed the film away under “films I might check out eventually” as opposed to the more urgent “must watch” area of my mind. But in the past week, when several friends mentioned the film to me in passing, and the opportunity presented itself to head to the theater, the decision was made to see Mitty in the spur of the moment. I hoped to be intrigued by this curious film that straddles the line between the epic and the absurd, but I never expected it to be so poignant, so enjoyable, so inspiring, and most importantly: so timely.
Evidently, Stiller’s Mitty is loosely inspired by a James Thurber short story, which was also previously adapted into a film starring Danny Kaye in 1947. I knew none of this until after watching Stiller’s version, so I really have no idea how to compare Stiller’s version to the previous incarnations of the story, but I do know that this new film is a remarkable achievement on its own merits. Both directed by and featuring Stiller in the title role, Walter Mitty is a negative assets manager for Life magazine who lives a rather mundane and boring life processing photographic negatives. He is single, has a secret crush on coworker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), is about to lose his job as Life transitions to online only, is tormented by transition manager Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), and regularly zones out, participating in fanciful daydreams of how he wishes his life would go. When he is tasked by famous photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) with providing Life with the “quintessential” photograph of the photographer’s career, negative 25, only to find that it is missing, Walter Mitty is faced with the task of hunting down either photograph or photographer, which results in him stepping beyond the mundane and into a globe-trotting adventure.
Mitty works on a remarkable number of levels. The film is funny and clever, but also genuine and earnest. Walter Mitty is a wonderful character because, as he is played by Stiller, he is incredibly relatable. We have all been Walter Mitty at some point in our lives. We have all agonized over a crush, awkwardly fumbled over words with those we are trying to impress, felt as if we were going nowhere with our lives, zoned out for a moment and dreamed of some fantastic ending to the story that is the present moment, gotten fed up with that boss at work that places corporate goals and his own success above (what it seems to us) all human decency. We have all felt oppressively lonely in the midst of a large group of people. We have all looked to the far off horizons and longed not to simply read about that greater life we dream of, but instead experience it for ourselves. Stiller, in his portrayal of a man who feels lost in the cogs of modernity, a man who (ironically) is lost in Life, has hit upon the frustrations and longings of anyone who is human. We do not laugh at Walter Mitty. We laugh because we know his struggles, for we have all been in his shoes.
The first ten minutes of the film are brilliant, immediately prompting us to empathize with Walter as he fills out his checkbook in his bland apartment, then proceeds to agonize over sending a virtual “wink” to Cheryl on eHarmony. His finger hovers over the computer, quaking with anxiety. He is forced to wrestle with both his own lack of courage and technical difficulties before heading off to work, where a great emphasis is placed on how he is just one solitary office drone among many off to do the same drab thing. It is all brought to a head when he sees Cheryl at work, and we realize what a simple and yet profound statement Stiller is making about our increasingly technological world. For all of our increased social connection through technology, in the masses of people present in our cities, are we really any closer to each other than before? No, we are in fact more distant and separated. Yes, it is a question we have hopefully all asked ourselves before, but in its first act, Mitty draws attention to many of the gulfs so prevalent in modern life remarkably well, and slowly but surely (through the surprisingly profound motto of Life magazine itself) begins to expose us to a far better way of living, one that is far more satisfying than even the most fantastic of Walter’s daydreams.
When Walter ventures beyond New York, his journey in pursuit of the elusive photographer and photograph takes him to some of the most wondrous and beautiful places on Earth, and the cinematography and camera work is breathtaking. Just as Walter as a man begins to transcend his previous dull existence, Mitty as a film begins to transcend simply being a fun, interesting and empathetic film and grows to become a journey of profound discovery that is both poignant and epic. He encounters a remarkably interesting cast of characters on his way, and it is a joy to see Walter gradually realize that participating in the beautiful play that is life itself is not limited to the dream-world as he once believed.
I could continue to go on about the wonders of the story itself, but I fear spoiling some of the wonder of the discovery that Walter undergoes throughout his outlandish adventures. Mitty consistently pushes the bounds of reality, but only to a point that is pleasantly imaginative and quixotic. The acting is superb, and the music not simply an accompaniment but an integral part of the story. The humor and daydreams are a delight because they are so real and relatable. We have all been Walter Mitty, and we all long to break out of the mundane life that the modern world hands us that feels soulless and bereft of meaning. Mitty tells us to step out into the wider world, pursue our dreams; do not just observe life through the lens of the modern world’s fake social constructs and interactions (looking at you, social media), but participate in the beautiful.
By the end (or perhaps the beginning) of Walter Mitty’s adventure, however, we have also learned something else, something far more profound. Though we must transcend the mundane, there is a level of tediousness and disappointment that cannot be avoided. But even in what we see as pointless, boring, and drudgery, there is an opportunity to do something greater, to live a life of meaning and significance wherever we find ourselves, regardless of whether we are recognized, regardless of whether we are traveling the world as Walter eventually does. Even Walter’s childhood experiences and hobbies, seemingly insignificant, are revealed to have weight and importance. “To see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel”, that is the purpose of life wherever we are, and for bringing our attention to that profound truth in such an artful and entertaining way, we cannot thank the makers of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty enough.