The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
The actual text of James Thurber’s short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a mere two thousand words or so. I’ve written half that much in some of my reviews, so clearly any movie that adapts this source can only use it as a jumping-off point. This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.
The 1947 adaptation used it as a framing device to set up a number of bits to play to Danny Kaye’s comedic strengths. As fun as it turned out, it’s pretty light fare. But now Ben Stiller brings us a new version, which turns Thurber’s hapless, henpecked daydreamer into a frustrated introvert, desperate for the chance to be greater than he thinks he is. Stiller jumps from Thurber’s starting point in a direction that may be very un-Thurberish indeed, but again: this is not necessarily a bad thing.
This Walter Mitty (Stiller) grew up around New York City, and he was always an offbeat sort as a kid, down to his mohawk and skateboard. But one day the real world came knocking, and it knocked him hard. He cut his hair, got a series of jobs, and arrives in his forties with a meticulous checkbook and sixteen years under his belt managing photo negatives for Life magazine. Which is unfortunate, since they’re about to go online- and digital-only, and have brought on the bro-ish and bizarrely bearded Ted (Adam Scott) to handle the transition.
As Walter tells the customer service representative at a dating website, he’s never been or done anything noteworthy or interesting. He trudges through his grey, desaturated days, and copes with it through fantastic daydreams about being attractive to Cheryl, his office crush (Kristen Wiig), or letting Ted finally have it. The daydreams are all he has; he stays at home while the likes of Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) go out and experience the world, sending its images back for Walter to pin down in the pages of the magazine.
So as the final issue of Life comes near, Sean sends back one last negative reel, including one he describes as “the Quintessence of Life” to serve as the last cover. Naturally, it’s missing. Walter is driven out into the world to track Sean from Greenland to the Himalayas. And in the process he starts to become the man he’d once wanted to be: the one who lay dormant in the younger Walter, and yet was drawn to the magazine’s mission.
The world, as shot by Stiller and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, is gorgeous, opening up spectacular vistas to the audience, much as the photojournalism of Life once did. Say what you will about its sentimentality, this is a beautiful film, and it will benefit greatly from an immersive, big-screen format.
As to the sentiment, Stiller fully embraces the magazine’s (fictional) motto: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to; to see behind walls; to draw closer; to find each other; and to feel. That is the purpose of Life.” It’s the sort of thing that’s easy to sneer at, and I expect many people will, patting themselves on the back for their cynicism.
It’s also the sort of thing that’s easy to run rampantly into smarm and sanctimony, but I think Stiller manages to avoid that. Walter’s life is not suddenly sunshine and roses after the weight is lifted; he’s just broken through the inhibitions that kept him from living the way he wanted to live, but he still has to do the work of living himself.
And Stiller also avoids privileging the spectacular in favor of the mundane, playing into the dating-site blurbs that suggest only the noteworthy is worthwhile. Yes, Walter is happier for having had these adventures, and they make for beautiful pictures, but it’s clear that the greatest things he ever did were right back in New York. Yes, this Walter Mitty is a hero closer to Campbell than to Thurber, but even Campbell knows that the most important part of the journey is the return home.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.