It has been a struggle to write about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty because I found it so simply and purely enjoyable. This isn’t a film that requires much analysis as it connects with audience members very directly and, I believe, to great satisfaction. Epic, adventurous, heartfelt, happily-ending – it was all those things that going to the movies should be.
Ben Stiller both directed and starred in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, portraying the title character who spends his days in the dark depths of Life magazine’s photography department as a negative assets manager. A nervous and quiet man by nature, Mitty is prone to grand daydreams of adventures that vastly outpace his mundane existence. This “zoning out” as his mother (Shirley MacLain) and sister (Kathryn Hahn) call it, is beautifully executed in the first quarter of the film (although there was one daydream sequence with Stiller and Adam Scott that felt too much like a campy superhero movie for my taste), so much so that I initially worried the entire film would be an insubstantial series of imagination sequences cut straight from the trailer. These first scenes, however, set the tone for and create an interesting parallel to the real world journeys that Mitty soon embarks on.
With Life magazine slated to become an online-only publication (side note: some critics, ahem Leonard Maltin, have criticized this plot point as anachronistic which I completely disagree with, as the end of print still feels entirely relevant to me in 2013/2014), Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott with an awful beard) comes in to handle the transition and pull off the publication of Life’s final print issue. Famed photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) sends in a roll of film containing an image, negative 25, that is to be the cover of the last-ever issue of the magazine. Somehow Walter, who has never lost a photograph in his entire 16-year tenure with Life, cannot find the single most important negative of his career. A recent hire to the magazine and Mitty’s love interest, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) encourages Walter to track down the notoriously elusive photographer in an effort to find O’Connell’s image which he purports is representative of the “quintessence” of Life magazine.
And so the real life adventure portion of our film begins. The subtle unfolding of the mysterious location of the negative takes Mitty through breathtaking country in Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan, and the Himalayas. These scenes retain the beauty and incredibility of his daydreams but feel much more authentic than his earlier imaginings, which were too fantastic and over the top to sustain the film on their own. Mitty catches a shipping vessel by helicopter in Greenland, longboards through the rolling hills of Iceland, makes friends with warlords of Afghanistan, backpacks in the Himalayas, is detained at LAX upon his return home. Those these adventures require us as audience members to stretch our imaginations, thankfully the movie never crosses the line into fantasy.
I will give a small spoiler but it isn’t hard to see this one coming: Mitty does find the negative and it happens to have been in a fairly obvious location all along. But nonetheless, I was so pleasantly surprised that the audience does ultimately see this quintessential Life image, rather than watching a movie structured around something so built up that it cannot possibly be revealed without disappointment. And the negative, once revealed, certainly does not disappoint.
Stiller plays an extremely endearing Mitty as audiences root for him to live life outside the wild imaginings of his mind. Scott was perfectly cast as the “villain,” threatening our protagonist’s career while ruthlessly mocking him and heartlessly tearing down the magazine that Mitty and his coworkers so passionately worked on. I’m not normally a Kristen Wiig fan, but I was completely sold on her as love interest. The audience is able to see in her what Walter sees: a sense of humor, honesty, value for adventure, and kindness. Patton Oswald is a great running gag throughout. In the opening scene, Mitty calls eHarmony regarding his difficulties with the online dating service and reaches cheery customer service rep Todd (Oswald). Because Mitty’s profile is so lackluster, Todd makes it his project to beef up Walter’s page on the eHarmony site, routinely calling him to check in as though the two were old friends. It adds to the humor of the film but also pays off in the end (I won’t give any spoilers on this one). And I don’t think there could have been a better Sean O’Connell than Sean Penn. A slightly pretentious guy completely devoted to his craft, Sean O’Connell is Sean Penn, and the fact that he plays such a central role in the movie but receives so little screen time further enhances that fact.
My main complaints are small in size and number. I’m not a huge fan of the musician Jose Gonzalez (to put it lightly) and his involvement with the film’s score meant that his music kept popping up in the film to my great dismay. The soundtrack was otherwise great, if not at times perfect. Take Arcade Fire’s epic song “Wake Up” – what better song to highlight the beginning of Mitty’s great adventure, when he embarks on a journey unparalleled in his lifetime and musters up every ounce of bravery from his deepest reserves to do so? There were some parts of the trip that, plot-wise, felt rushed. A lot of attention is paid to the progression of his travels at the outset, but then Mitty all of a sudden finds himself back in New York without much explanation only to quickly be off again to Afghanistan. As intelligent audience members, we understand what is going on. We just would hope to see as much attention paid to the entire journey as was devoted to its first leg.
Because of the movie’s PG rating, all the previews before the film were geared toward an audience who has yet to reach high school. Needless to say, I was worried from the opening credits that this movie had been marketed to the wrong audience and I was a member of those misguided folks. My worries were eased pretty much instantly after the opening credits. Far from a kid’s film, there is a striking maturity to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty despite its fantastical elements. Without being cheesy or hokey, Stiller as director was able to strike the perfect balance between imagination and reality, making this movie age appropriate for anyone and utilizing the universality of its central themes.
I’m not sure why critics and audiences have been so divided on Walter Mitty, a movie that provided me and my husband with a purely delightful film-going experience. All I can guess is that cynics were not impressed with a movie that felt neat and tidy with its happy ending, family friendly with its PG rating, or idealistic with its belief in our human capability for love and adventure. Maybe others are griping about the way the movie was adapted. Admittedly, I have not read the short story so I cannot speak to how the character has been translated to film again or if the plot was poorly transformed. In this case, I have to take the film on its own merits as a distinct piece of art.
Much as I can appreciate and enjoy artistic, well-acted or challenging films, there is something indescribable about seeing a movie that simply makes you feel good and begs to be watched again and again. Those kind of movies rise to the top in my book, and that’s why The Secret Life of Walter Mitty just might be my favorite movie of 2013 (seeing it on New Year’s Eve, I got in just under the wire on that one). I left the theater after Inside Llewyn Davis and The Wolf of Wall Street having really enjoyed myself, but it was a different experience entirely to enjoy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (which is, by the way, a movie probably most enjoyed for the first time on the big screen of a theater) and immediately anticipate watching it again in the future. Well done Ben Stiller!