To me, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is destined to be a feel-good classic. I bow to Ben Stiller for blazing a way through the thicket of Hollywood cliches to a film that manages to be realistic, fantastic, action-y and heartwarming all at once. Even though I’ve had my occasional lapses of affection for Stiller, and yes maybe he occasionally does let the camera linger a few seconds too long on his own face, I loved him as Walter Mitty. He really transforms Thurber’s creation into a post-modern, post-hero hero. A man of our times.
It’s intriguing to me that some major reviewers have critiqued this film so harshly. Roger Ebert’s successor, Glenn Kenny, pitched a blatantly ad hominem attack, and NYT reviewer A.O.Scott found fault with an ending he believed tried to position Stiller as sort of a new age guru, not the everyman he purported to be. And yet both seem to miss the fact that this entire film is somewhat of a fantasy, so why shouldn’t Mitty become a pin-up boy for the realized self?
The script is inventive and sparkling, the casting marvelous, and the production values - the shooting, editing and special effects - brilliant. A delightful soundtrack elevates Mitty’s journey to what I can only call comic-mythic stature - for what myth can truly work in this day and age if it doesn’t have a trace of the comic to leaven it?
As you probably know, in Thurber’s story (really just a point of departure for this film) Mitty is a humdrummish fellow with a fabulous fantasy life wherein he’s always featured as hero. Thurber's Mitty is simply hell-bent on escape from a tedious life and they story ends in his fantasy of smoking nonchalantly before a firing squad. Stiller wrests his story out of complacency and adds much more dimensionality to this wanna-be hero, giving him thwarted passion and a true narrative arc. This is not just a man’s amusing fantasy life - this is a do or die hero’s journey.
Nonetheless, the fantasy element (treated with delicious SFX tricks throughout the film) kicks in early as Mitty dives off a train platform to rescue a doggie from a burning building, all in a desperate desire to woo a coworker (Kristen Wiig) that he’s too bashful to approach in person. That Stiller weaves in the contemporary icon of eHarmony (product placement much?) only makes his condition as fantast more poignant, since he can’t even muster the chops to build a compelling profile for himself and needs to turn to eHarmony client relation expert (Patton Oswalt) for advice. It’s clear that Mitty’s only strength is his dogged loyalty to Life Magazine (as a photo archivist “Negative Assets Manager”) and to their star photographer in the field, Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn.) Oh yes, and his devotion to his mother (played with charming authenticity by Shirley MacLaine) and loopy sister (Kathryn Hahn.)
So when Mitty cannot find the negative that O’Connell sent in (#25 is missing from the strip) and which is meant for the cover of the last hard-copy issue of Life magazine, he realizes his only hope is to track down the itinerant photographer himself. No easy task as O’Connell plays in far-flung fields and only corresponds via telegram. Now the clock starts ticking as new owners take the magazine digital - a smug and perfectly bearded crew of digerati led by sneering antagonist Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation.) And now we’re off on a real and very rocky adventure to Iceland, and its erupting volcano Eyjafjallajökull, and then through more misadventures to Greenland - startling scenery, highly amusing set-ups and novel characters (Olafur Olafsson’s druken helicopter pilot and Ari Mattiasson’s First Mate), exhilirating long tracking shots of Stiller on a skateboard with groovy evocative anthems from Jose Gonzalez, Of Monsters and Men and Rogue Wave.
One of the film’s charming feats is the weaving and reweaving of plot elements - Walter’s repeated puzzling over the significance of negatives #23 and #24, his mother’s mandarin orange cake, a lost wallet...The penultimate clue is a startling one and the final reveal of #25 even more so.
At the heart of this story is a search for a lost self. Walter’s punk id was left behind at 16 with the death of his father and Walter’s assumption of his mantle. Grown into the starched polyester shirts of his father’s era, Walter becomes a simulacrum of a mature man. Walter’s journey is not the typical clunky path of a stunted 30-something adolescent into adulthood, reprised too often in the bromances of Judd Apatow and co., but rather the reverse. If yanking dreams off the shelf is not a resonant theme for anyone over 30, I don’t know what is.
Ellary Eddy is Editor of Realize Magazine.