I had a feeling about halfway through The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a kind of dread that this would be one of those films where the trailer had exceeded the final product. Where clever editing and a perfect song selection had effectively spoiled the emotional impact of the story itself and that I had wasted ten bucks on a movie that I had essentially already seen. And it was until about the halfway point before that feeling subsided and a clever surprisingly subtle story found its legs. Although I can’t say I have ever been the biggest fan of Ben Stiller, some of his humor is a little too broad or a little too juvenile, I will admit Zoolander holds a special place in my heart and I thought that The Cable Guy was pretty underrated. After Tropic Thunder I thought I had a pretty good idea what path his career as a director would be going in, so it was pretty shocking when the aforementioned sober, thoughtful, and visually gorgeous trailer debuted. The film itself is all of these things and more. It’s funny without trying too hard (one or two moments aside) while at the same time mature, thoughtful and patient in getting its message across. The word that keeps coming to mind is sincere and I am much improved for the experience.
Walter Mitty is the kind of guy you might have worked with for years and didn’t realize it. He’s an Every Man, a pushover, a dreamer whose only really antagonist in the film is himself. Although he encounters bullies and belligerents in his journey his real obstacle is his inability to communicate his dreams to the world around him. In his mind’s eye the idea of a hero is fantastical and perfect, impossibly ideal. He constructs his fantasies in the moment as a kind of balm for his own shortcomings and insecurities, and in doing so abstains from actually participating in his own life. His job at Life Magazine managing negative film print is entirely appropriate. Not only is film a dated and limited medium, it’s his only access to the outside world, one he only perceives through other people’s eyes. It’s a beautiful touch that the thing that sparks his courage is unexpected admiration from one of his own idols, a near-mythical photojournalist Walter has spent years developing film for who sends him a gift in gratitude. That the gift itself is a wallet with an inspiring inscription makes for a lovely metaphor for values, a metaphor that is explored and revisited as Walter begins and ends his journey.
It would be unfair not to spend some time admiring the film for its cinematography. The framing and dolly work in the beginning perfectly set the stage for the kind of life Walter lives in: antiseptic, muted, huge and uncaring. He’s tiny and irrelevant on his way to work, easily fading into the background in his office. Outside of his fantasies, there is no warmth in the grays and teals and tans that surround him. But when he gets going, when Walter takes off on his journey the camera takes off with him. The energy and movement light up the screen and Stiller comes away as a more confident director than I ever would have expected. Who knew he could still longboard? Who knew Iceland was so beautiful? Or that it has a Papa John’s?
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the kind of film that ends and all I want to do is sit and watch the credits roll. Although there are a few things about the story that are a little too incredible, like Walter’s cellphone reception or his inexhaustible finances, it’s the kind of movie that both inspires and fosters a sense of dissatisfaction with day to day life. I am a firm believer in pursuing dreams, in following your heart regardless of the risk, it’s what brought me to a new city and a new life, one I am perpetually grateful for. But it’s hard to maintain that feeling of being inspired while paying bills and working in an office building. Which is all part of it, of course, the escape and adventure isn’t nearly as rewarding if it isn’t longed for, if it’s not paid for with sweat and mundanity. It’s why I don’t think Walter Mitty’s flights of imagination were all that bad to begin with. Certainly, his got out of hand and there was no balance between his fantasies and his actual goals but it’s impossible to pursue a dream if you don’t dream it up in the first place. So when the credits rolled on Walter Mitty I couldn’t help but sit in place and focus on the realization that something was missing. The fact is, it has been a long time since I’ve done anything but worry about my income or my health or my performance at work. I can’t remember the last time I daydreamed about anything other than sustaining and this is an unacceptable state of being.
It escapes me why a film like this receives mixed reviews. Granted, it’s not It’s a Wonderful Life but it is a pretty lovely, endearing story that is well-acted and directed that says it’s okay to dream but it’s important to live as well. That sometimes the most romantic and attractive thing that you can be is self-confident. And that sometimes the thing you’re looking for, the thing you believe you desperately need was right in front of you the whole time and it’s still important to get lost looking for it all the same. Ultimately, this film made me feel joy and hope and a little bit of sadness, it was well worth the ten bucks. Further than that, it made me feel older and a little less content with my life the way that it is. Not too much, though. Just enough to wake up.