“To see the world, things dangerous to come to,
to see behind walls, draw closer,
to find each other and to feel.
That is the purpose of life.”
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) filled my Boxing Day morning with delight and wonder. It is the latest adaption of the 1939 short story by James Thurber; the original film opening in 1949 under the same name. I had neither seen the original film nor read the short story before entering the cinema to see Ben Stiller’s interpretation. I was a blank canvas and I was about to get splattered!
The film begins (after a short scene) with a marvellous cinematic experience and really took my breathe away. The sheer beauty of this film has to be seen to be understood and looks lovely on the large screen. Stuart Dryburgh (Anazlyze This, Runaway Bride, Bridget Jones’ Diary) handles the cinematography with grace and elegance; shifting comfortably as the film shuffles in and out of reality. What’s that? You aren’t familiar with the plot? Let me give you a mini rundown.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) works as a Negative Assets Manager at the soon-to-go-virtual LIFE magazine. He recently joined e-Harmony to get a leg in with a co-worker (funny yet restrained Kristen Wiig) and is prone to “zoning out”. During the final weeks of LIFE, a crucial photo negative goes missing and Walter is responsible for finding it.
Steve Conrad (screenwriter) has done an intelligent job linking Walter’s physical journey with his personal journey. Arguably, the physical journey is purely metaphorical; the out-workings of Walter’s internal growth. When he heads to Greenland to find photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), I found myself cheering him on, keen for him to break out of his monotony and in turn, suddenly keen to escape from my own.
Ben Stiller, who I ordinarily avoid, plays Mitty with a mixed sense of gravitas and playfulness. His character is sympathetically likeable; continually being ‘humiliated’ by his new boss (a bearded Adam Scott) or “zoning out” at key moments. You are rooting for Mitty when the first IT-Help-Desk call comes through from e-Harmony, when he jumps out of a plane and when he fantasy takes down his boss. You feel his pain when the leads are leading nowhere, when his job is on the line and when he helps his mum (Shirley MacLaine) sell the family piano.
I found myself tearing up in parts and laughing out loud in others. The audience around me had mixed responses; some quietly laughing, others shaking their heads. My mum thought it was too slow and fell asleep for half of it. Certainly, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty builds up from a crawl to a stumble and if it were rented on DVD, I see many people switching it off within the first half hour. Yet much of my own enjoyment came from the slow-build reflective journey; I was happy to put life on hold and just be present within the narrative.
One of my favourite things about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was the clever placement of words throughout the film. For example, during one scene Walter’s text message appears on the side of the building. During another, as Walter starts his journey, the words of the LIFE motto (see beginning quote) appear all over the airport as he gets ready to take off. I love this mixed media approach! Why isn’t there more of it!
On occasion, I found the instantaneous split into ‘dream-world’ frustrating. At the end of every scene, I was holding out for a reality “do-over” and as Walter becomes more adventurous, my anticipation of menial real-life reenactments built to nearly unbearable… was the entire second half of the film going to be a dream sequence?
It is with that philsophical extension that I leave you, dear reader. If you would like to enjoy a visual treat these holidays and take a break from your own reality, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty will satisfy your tastebuds. If you have too much going on, maybe your own journey should begin at home, and you can catch it on DVD while you are folding washing.