Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)


The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
(2013, PG) stars Ben Stiller as Walter Mitty, a neurotically introverted employee of LIFE Magazine who works in 'negative asset management', which means he spends his life in a dark, subterranean office pouring over and storing thousands of photographic negatives. Walter's introversion is so profound that he occasionally "zones out", entering into extremely realistic fantasy day-dreams that take him out of reality momentarily. In his day dreams, Walter is dashing, courageous and romantic while his waking life remains painfully mundane.

This all changes when Walter apparently misplaces and extraordinarily important negative from world-famous photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), which is supposed to serve as the cover of LIFE's final hard copy edition. With his job and his honor on the line, Walter is forced to come out of himself and go on a real-life adventure that takes him to Greenland, Iceland and even Afghanistan in search of Sean O'Connell and the elusive negative. In the process, he learns to find his courage, making friends along the way and even winning the girl in the end.

This may all sound terribly cliche, but this movie was surprisingly good. A friend of mine, Dr. Stan Williams, who works in film with a focus on story development, has stated in his book The Moral Premise that all great films have fairly simple or predictable plots. That is what makes them so good; we can see the weaknesses of the protagonist and know exactly where he needs to go, spiritually and personally. Secret Life of Walter Mitty took a relatively simple story (actually based on a 1939 book by James Thurber) and made a truly beautiful, human focused film out of it. Some will say I am going too far, but this movie approaches a work of art. It was a rare gem.

I'm not a huge fan of Ben Stiller; he has his moments, though, and in Walter Mitty he really rises above the sort of crudeness we have seen in Meet the Parents and Dodgeball. There is one or two crude jokes; at one point, Walter thinks an Icelanding man is saying "erection" when really he is shouting "eruption." But overall he really surpasses his previous performances in this film, giving us a lot more depth. I also have to mention to superb soundtrack, which compliments the narrative perfectly. Everything comes together in proper balance.

There is a little bit of action, some in Mitty's fantasy sequences, some in real life. But we identify so closely with Walter's attempts to step out of himself, that the relatively simple actions sequences in Walter's waking life are much more interesting than the fantastic things he imagines. A simple scene of Walter overcoming his fear to run and jump onto a helicopter as he leaves the tarmac is infinitely more interesting than the over-the-top CGI battle sequence Walter imagines.

And it is supposed to be that way. This film wants us to realize that life, itself, is an adventure; that friendship is as exciting as any fantasy quest. We are sincerely engaged in simply watching Walter get on a helicopter, jump into the water, skateboard down a road. Life is extraordinary. In this sense, the film has a very Chestertonian feel, with some added punches against corporate artificialism that really hit home.

An added bonus: There is no gratuitous romance with obligatory kissing or sex. Yes, there is a love interest, but the love interest is not thrown in just to have a love interest. She is perfectly integrated with the rest of the plot, Walter's difficulty in speaking to her a sign of his struggle with himself. And in the end, when Walter "gets the girl", there is no kissing, no sex - just a simple joining of hands to signify that Walter has finally reached out beyond himself and made a human connection. Beautifully done.

And that missing negative? Well, I won't spoil it, but it is also splendid.

Ben Stiller really did a nice job here. I recommend this movie highly. There is one unfortunate scene where the corporate villain, played by Adam Scott, uses the Lord's name in vain. There is never an excuse for blasphemy, but it is some consolation that it comes from the villain and not the protagonist. 

I give this film a technical 2.5, on the principle that no film which has gratuitous blasphemy can ever get a 3. But if it were not for that one scene, that one unfortunate scene, I would give this film a 3 in a heartbeat. Go see it. You will enjoy it. It is a gem.