Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty tells the tale of a dreamer, the title character who's mundane life and mild personality results in a habit where he escapes through daydreams into a parallel life of excitement, danger and romance in which he always says what he's thinking, saves the day, and gets the girl. But when the daydream ends he always finds himself back in lifeless reality, usually with people wondering what just happened. His episodes of zoning out are both the bane and the fuel of his life, so something's gotta give.

Which is worse? Daydreaming through life, or living in a dull cloud of routine?

That's when a work problem arises as a shipment of photos from a famous photographer arrives, containing a bunch of photos except the one meant to be used for the final cover of Life magazine. The photos are under Walter's care, and the most important one is missing. With his job at stake, and the girl he admires (Kristen Wiig) encouraging him, he takes a step from the mundane and into adventure yet again in search of the photo negative; but this time it's not a daydream.

But this is -- this definitely is!

There are many great things about this movie, but I think the main one is how deceptively simple it is. The theme is obvious, the tagline says it outright: "Stop dreaming. Start living." I don't know if the marketing was intentionally misleading, or if it just didn't occur to some people, but this movie is a lot greater than that one-size-fits-all inspirational quote. And it worked on me -- I was prepared for the one size theme, and a character whose arc goes traditionally; from timid loser to hero in two hours or less. And when the truth of the matter smacked me upside the head, I was impressed.

See, Walter Mitty was never mundane. He's a nice guy with an actual personality whose dull place in life was dictated by circumstances. He put his ambitions on hold until they were so far away they were forgotten, and he began to believe he was what he appeared to be. But he's not, or else he would have given up on that photo without even trying. This film doesn't show our hero becoming a new man, brave and adventurous, but simply rediscovering that that's who he's been all along.

On that note: Ben Stiller has never been more personable.

The tagline tries to tell us that dreaming is the problem, but it's not true. Walter's excessive dreaming distanced him from people and exposed him to ridicule, but daydreaming didn't cause his mundane life, it was only the result of it. And as the film rolls on, we see more and more how it was a greater benefit to him than a hindrance. Ultimately, dreaming gives him the courage he needs that leads to his not living in the imaginary or the mundane anymore.

So that's the picture I drew from it anyway. Now on to the framing, which does its job of showing off and complementing the work of art wonderfully. And this is another example of the deceptively simple nature of the film. The plot was simply and neatly woven, was more or less predictable throughout, (but without losing interest) and moved along at a leisurely pace. Then it would slide effortlessly into a moment, straightforward, and profound or inspiring, or just simply beautiful -- for no other reason than that's just what it is.

I'm not saying he's crazy, but someone's crazy, and it's not the people in the boat... or the helicopter.

As an artist I appreciated the artistic themes, from the plot revolving around an elusive perfect photo, to the celebration of the imagination, to the well-placed musical interludes. The locations were just beautiful, and the cinematography used them to the full advantage. And there was an old-fashioned, vintage feel that seeped in (through the film's being based on a 1939 short story) and gave everything a sense of value. I also loved the overall colorful brightness of the film. Tinting and coloring is often overdone, and typically the more it's used the more personality the movie loses, but I've finally witnessed it's proper use, and it enhances the film just like it should.

The overall feel is light, and there were even several places that warranted a good chuckle. The drama never got melodramatic, but was always just there, honest and coming out of good, solid, simple performances. Cheesiness was saved for the moments of over-the-top, action-filled daydreams, where it actually does good amongst the fantastic, ridiculous silliness. Turns out Walter Mitty's secret life was just that -- not imaginary, or impossible, just a well-kept secret, and when it is revealed for all to see, we see, perhaps, something similar to secrets we've been keeping too.

I think this movie needs a new tagline.


  1. Me and my brothers are thinking about watching this one some time.

    1. I definitely recommend that you do! Y'all enjoy! :)

  2. I love the original story by James Thurber, but have never managed to see either this version or the one with Danny Kaye. One of these days!

    1. I'm pretty sure this movie changed a lot from the short story, but I'd like to read it sometime! Haven't seen the older version either. You should definitely watch this though, I think you'd like it. :)

  3. I saw this earlier this year and it immediately became one of my top favorites. And your post encapsulates it perfectly. Well done. Enjoyed the read, and seeing how you would explain the story.