The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Ben Stiller directs, co-produces and stars in this long awaited adaptation of the iconic short story.
On the face of it, James Thurber’s seminal 1939 short story would not seem like the kind of material ripe for a Hollywood adaptation. Emphasis on the “short” part of the short story description. But it was attempted, successfully, in 1947, and ever since the early 90s, a remake has been kicking around various facets of pre-production hell in tinsel town, waiting for the right team to come along, with names like Steven Spielberg, Scarlett Johansson, Ron Howard, Jim Carrey, Gore Verbinski, Sacha Baron Cohen and Johnny Depp all reportedly involved at some point or another.
Ben Stiller is, apparently, that team, taking on both the roles of director and co-producer, as well as the lead, in this adaptation that takes the bare premise of Thurber’s story and just runs with it. With a production history this long, you might not blame him in his single-handed approach. With a marketing campaign based around some of the most impressive trailers of the year, I considered The Secret Life of Walter Mitty a must see, and was lucky enough to get into a preview screening this week, the film itself being released around Christmas. So, is it standard holiday fare, something deeper, or a shallow attempt to make a movie out of something that should have been left alone?
Because of the nature of how I viewed this movie, I thought it would be apropos to change up my usual format just a bit, and in fact it might be one that I will keep in future, with a short, non-spoiler, review right at the top, before diving in to the deeper aspects, a separation that will be clearly marked.
Walter Mitty (Stiller) is a negative asset manager at LIFE magazine, who escapes into elaborate daydreams to get away from his unexceptional life, an unrequited attraction to co-worker Cheryl (Kristin Wiig) and the coming end of his publication at the hands of a bullying “transition manager” (Adam Scott). When the chosen photograph for LIFE’s last cover goes missing, a frustrated Mitty launches himself on a global trek to track down its taker, famed photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) and to discover why the unseen negative was dubbed “the quintessence of life”.
I’m happy to say that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a few steps above standard holiday fare, and is far from shallow. Stiller manages to craft a story that captures much of the central essence of Thurber’s tale, but adds enough refreshingly new elements to prevent any accusations of staleness. It is one of 2013’s great character journey’s, as we follow the titular drone, desperate and increasingly frustrated in his basement-dwelling employment, breakout so he can try and better himself through a quest that almost makes the movie a modern day fairy tale, full of surreal and memorable sequences.
Paced with skill, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty moves from engrossing set-piece to set-piece, be they the wonderfully crafted daydreams that define the character of Mitty, or the adventures that take place in reality, as Mitty tries to improve his appreciation of life and become worthy of his love-interest Cheryl. Perhaps that exact sub-plot and the character that it is based around falls down a bit due to lack of fleshing out and screentime, but this is a movie about Mitty more than anything.
Stiller gives a moving and memorable portrayal of Mitty, though it will likely not be dubbed his finest work. He captures the desperation that encompasses the Mitty character very well, and makes him somebody that the audience can relate to and cheer for as the movie goes on, he being the everyman that we all have feared to be (or perhaps, we are). He is matched to a certain extent by Wiig, who makes Cheryl her own as much as she is able to do, adding a romantic angle that the story rather needs so that it does not become too focused on Mitty’s search for life in all its glory. Adam Scott’s nasty transition manager is rather overblown and unbelievable, but still acted with aplomb, while Sean Penn shows up for one brief, but utterly gripping scene late on.
Behind the camera, Stiller, focusing on immense wide angles that allow as much of his chosen environments to shine as much as possible, offers up visuals and stun and gratify, from the windows on Mitty’s dreams within LIFE magazine to more natural surrounds in Iceland, the Atlantic Ocean and beyond. The limited use of CGI in the film is rather poor, but shouldn’t be considered too much of an immersion breaker. The score is functional without being spectacular, with the film finding greater traction in its excellent soundtrack.
I found The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to by a captivating tale, one whose positive message made it an immensely enjoyable experience. If the movie was about telling us to stop dreaming and start living, I think it succeeded, and does without becoming too saccharine or unwieldy. A movie that, by this point, it is clear that I recommend to all and sundry.
Stiller does well in all aspects of his involvement, perhaps more with his direction than acting.
Greater discussion of the movie, with spoilers, from this point on.
The short story was about escape – escape from mediocrity, from boredom, from vapid relationships. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty keeps that central point, that crux, and keeps the Mitty character, and then goes off into its own adventure, an adventure that is about many things and goes to many places, but is still just about escape, and what the human mind and spirit is willing to do in order to escape.
And I think that it is a really beautiful tale, told very well. Stiller does not have the most amazing directorial pedigree, and his one foray in that role outside of pure comedy fare (like the excellent Tropic Thunder) was the very middling The Cable Guy. But I have to give him serious kudos here: His The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a really wonderful story. It is a movie that is so resoundingly positive, in a very genuine way that is so rare to see in cinema nowadays. Uplifting, inspiring, heart-warming, these are the kind of words that you want to throw at a movie like this, but I feel I would be straying too far into clichés, and I don’t want to give the impression that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a simple production designed to simply make people happy. I just think that is has a beautiful message at its heart, one that is, when viewed the right way and with an open mind, not especially soppy, generic or tugging at the heartstrings in an obvious way. That message is one I’ll get into later, but I wanted to give an overall appraisal of the plot right off the bat.
Walter Mitty is supposed to be an everyman, and an everyman in the way that an everyman should be: somebody that we don’t actually want to be. Walter Mitty is boring, pedestrian, the kind of man you would never be able to pick out of a crowd. In a great opening scene that is without any dialogue, Stiller creates this feeling, as we see Mitty, immaculately dressed in its tidy apartment eating his cereal, going through his budget with all the thoroughness of a man who has next to nothing to live for. He has to steel himself up to leave a “wink” on the eHarmony site of his crush, Cheryl, and gets momentarily frustrated when this fails to work, but he doesn’t shout or grunt or curse. He just buries it all deep inside and goes down the proper channels to try and get it fixed. As an opening scene, it is small-scale, minimalist in its crew and visual choices, but amazingly effective at showing us just who Walter Mitty is and what his problems are.
It is in the following scene that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty first reaches the heart of the matter. Mitty is so miserable, that the only thing he can do to try and alleviate his unhappiness is to “zone out” – to escape into intricate and elaborate fantasies where he is the hero, where he always says just the right thing, where he is adored, where he is not wasting his life ringing customer support for an online dating service.
The fantasies were the whole point and highlight of the short story, and I think that Stiller and company have implanted them brilliantly into this production, always tying them in directly to what Mitty is saying or doing at the time. His first fantasy is based wholesale around Cheryl’s e-Harmony account, centred around the brilliant line “God, you’re notable”. His new boss runs him down, and Mitty has the perfect comeback, but only in his mind. When the same boss keeps bullying him, the payback comes in a perfectly executed (story wise) superhero battle fantasy through the streets of New York over a Stretch Armstrong doll. When he needs encouragement later, he see’s Cheryl’s face everywhere.
I think we can all, to some extent anyway, relate to the kind of character Walter Mitty is. We’ve all been there, imagining ourselves as better than we are, more exciting, with the pitch perfect comeback, with the right line for the one that got away. We’ve all gone back to some moment and thought “If I had the chance, I would have done this instead”.
I know I have anyway, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty speaks to anyone who at some point had an over-active imagination, who concocted complex fantasy lives for themselves or who was ever (or is) at a point in their lives where they felt trapped and unable to break out and be the person that they want to be. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the story and the movie, finds its brilliance in being able to put these moments front and centre, and not have them feel too jarring, and perhaps more importantly, not have the difference between fantasy and reality become too vague.
That was very important, because there is always the worry that the movie would pull a M. Night Shyamalan worthy twist and reveal that all of Mitty’s journey and growth was inside his head, the kind of cop-out that would both infuriate and disgust me. But, thankfully, Stiller did not go down that road, choosing instead to focus on a much more positive, and real, story, even with all of the daydreams.
Instead, they almost feel natural, at least insofar as to how Mitty is portrayed. It spoke to me and my own memories, experiences and, yes, even fantasies of one-upmanship and personal perfection. It made me connect, almost instantly, to the Mitty character and the journey he had to go on, internally and externally. Mitty is the everyman, in the truest sense of the term and is so much more relatable to the audience because of it.
As we break out into the wide world, Mitty undergoes a pivotal change, in mind as well as dress.
But, in fairness to Stiller and the Mitty he has created and embodied, the titular character has a bit more depth than merely being an everyman. His Mitty was an adventurous young man encouraged by a loving father – he won skateboarding awards, he had a Mohawk, he planned to go out and see the world. Then his father died and suddenly he had to take on a heap of responsibility way too soon in his life, a responsibility he never deserved to shoulder. But shoulder he did, and like a cubicle-based Atlas, he never let it drop, still supporting his mother and leeching sister decades later, with the pain on his face when he finds his father’s last gift – an noticeably unused travel journey that urges him to “have fun” – very obvious. That Mitty dropped all of his expectations in life to do so is both tragic and commendable, making him a strangely heroic and still pitiable creature. Better, from a characterisation viewpoint, it makes Mitty less of a stereotype. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is not the story of him having a sudden awakening and going out into the world. It’s more of a resurrection tale: the old Walter Mitty, the mohawked skateboarder, is coming back to life. All of the elements are still there, they’re just buried under the weight of being a breadwinner, of the emotional absence of his father, something Mitty refuses to speak about or contemplate, not until he finds himself using a skateboard again for the first time in years, or when he comes back to where his decline first started: a Papa Johns fast food franchise. Mitty hides his grief through the daydreams, which offer an escape from the horrible responsibility he took onto his shoulders decades ago, but The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a story about how he learns that they aren’t required, not anymore.
Easily the best was a moment, in Greenland, where Mitty seems to have hit a dead end in both his outward and inward quest, and then imagines Cheryl singing an acoustic version of “Space Oddity” to him. The song had already been established as a plot point of minor importance, in both a positive and negative way, and now this daydream reinforces its more beneficial impact on Mitty – as a song about courage and exploration, sung in an excellent, understated way. Having previously balked, he now rushes to return to his journey, despite all of the risk that it comes with, with David Bowie’s words ringing in his ears: “…now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare.” It was just a well-crafted scene, one of many, which tied in the central theses, the Mitty/Cheryl relationship and reinforced some small but crucial plot elements. And you can’t go wrong with Bowie, and there are few other songs that would have been more perfect for that moment.
And The Secret Life of Walter Mitty also rounds off its use of daydreams very well. Around the halfway mark, they gradually cease to occur, as Mitty goes out into the world, relocates his love of (and talent for) skateboarding, finds Sean O’Donnell and leaves behind some of the more negative aspects of his life. Finally, when Mitty meets eHarmony’s “Todd” in person, he notes that they basically aren’t occurring anymore. Just as they have served their purpose in the life of the main character, so they have served their purpose in the movie that bears his name. The daydreams substituted for adventure, and when the real adventure starts, they aren’t needed anymore. The daydreams were a strange sort of healing for Mitty, an escape from his life and the trauma of his past, but he doesn’t need the escape. The cracks have been filled in, and no longer need to be papered over. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the story of how that comes to be, and that is how the daydreams, that central hook of the short story, are used, and to such great effectiveness. They’re entertaining when they are there, but aren’t missed when they are gone.
I suppose that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty could be seen as the cliché journey. Mitty goes on several adventures, and learns a lot about himself, winning the girl in the process. But like I said, I think that this has been avoided to an acceptable extent, by Mitty’s previous life, and the fact that his journey is largely one of return. Moreover, if the point is clichés, I think that it has been lessened by the general quality of the production and the characters, something I might call my “Walter Mitty Test” from now on.
It might be useful to go through the film in a more straightforward manner. We’ve covered the beginning, which outlines some of Mitty’s future motivations and sets up a sort of ever-present divide in his aims: is he doing all of what follows for himself or just so he can try and win the heart of Cheryl? I think that it was done effectively for Cheryl’s eHarmony “wants” to be a sort of springboard for Mitty, who, having attempted to romantically pursue this woman to the best of his, faltering, ability, finds in her words a sort of roadmap, something that she re-emphasises in person later on. Cheryl, as a character within the plot, could be seen as a sort of reward for Mitty’s transformation, the princess the knight reaches after defeating the dragon. This is a negative I suppose, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty could perhaps do with Cheryl being more of a character in her own right, besides just being somebody for Mitty to obsess over. Of course, it isn’t The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Cheryl, and there are a few fleeting glimpses of hidden depth in the Cheryl character anyway, from her interactions with her son, her love of mystery novels and the way she moves herself more and more into Mitty’s life. I liked how she largely did that of her own volition, getting closer to the title character and his quest without being “pursued” and dragged into the story.
Anyway, the first act in LIFE magazine set up that pining aspect to Mitty really well, as he imagines himself as much smoother foreign lothario, while in reality he suffers from being the brunt of Ted’s jokes and bullying. At this point, Cheryl is a distant aspiration, one that Mitty can hardly contemplate. Before he can even try and cross that river, he has to build the bridge.
That stuff, this early in the film, is still mostly asides to a brutal look at the culture of capitalistic greed and downsizing in America, a process undertaken in as uncaring a manner as possible even though the things that it destroys are very real. But if there was one real stand-out fault in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty that bothered me, it was probably the Adam Scott character. Stories need a villain, but I don’t think The Secret Life of Walter Mitty needed one as obvious as this, who chooses to pick on Mitty very directly and quickly after meeting him, and shows little signs of being anything other than an antagonistic insert. The real point of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was for the title character to overcome his own personal problems and not some archetypical corporate asshole, one whose mannerisms would seem, to me anyway, to be the opposite of what such a job would call for: surely a downsizer should be doing everything they can to avoid personnel disputes? Someone like Adam Scott’s Ted would not go very far in that profession if he was treating people in this manner.
I suppose that I can forgive that though, because the character at least served to show how unassertive – in reality – that Mitty was, as well as pushing him out the door of his humdrum life. His existence also allowed for the battle daydream, which I found very entertaining and maybe put the sort of face on the downsizer element that we wish they actually were like, so they would be even easier to hate. Was Stiller, in the role of director, being a bit meta in this? In showing us a villain of our fantasies or daydreams, where the downtrodden worker easily wins our sympathies over the cruel, unmoving downsizer, instead of the sort of mediator who is closer to the reality? Maybe. It’s something to think about. More critically, something like “the Bobs” from the excellent Office Space probably hit the mark far better when it comes to such people, who are doing a job and trying to do it in as efficient and non-confrontational manner as possible – even if the manner in which they do it can often be seen as cruel and stupid. In a similar vein, Mitty is much like the maligned Milton from the same movie, relegated to working in a basement and just trying to get by.
Anyway, Mitty gets his quest, and encouraged by Cheryl, finally works up the courage to seek it out. Second act time, which takes the form of a series of random events, as Mitty travels to Greenland and then on to Iceland. Aside from some of their more visual positives, I still loved these sequences, of someone like Mitty being taken very far from his comfort zone, featuring small, but well-presented characters. Mitty gets in a barfight, travels in a helicopter with a drunk pilot, dives into the North Atlantic, cycles and skateboards around Iceland and escapes from an erupting volcano, the sort of adventures we, perhaps, all wish we could have to some extent. That they come so hard and fast is obviously fantastical, but Stiller is quick to separate the reality from the daydreams, save for one slightly confusing scene featuring the sharks.
Mitty grows on this first journey, exemplified no better than in the scene where he straps rocks to his hands and rides the “longboard” down the Icelandic road, utilising some of his old skill, and suddenly enjoying himself in the process. It was so refreshing, so joyous, to see a character like this actually smiling, suddenly lost in a favourite activity, hitting the audience right in the sweet spot.
Wiig does just fine, but her Cheryl needed a bit more to be considered a very good character.
These sequences, like later ones, also begin a recurring plot point of unexpected allies and friends, as Mitty meets people he would not normally meet and embraces their lifestyle and aid. None of them are very important characters and none of them get a lot of screen time, but they all have something, a little vital piece of humanity to mark them out. In the Greenlandic bar, we find a drunk native trying to find solace after cheating on his partner, very unwise in a place where there is only eight people. Onboard the boat, we find a boatswain who comes up with Mitty’s favourite type of cake and later advises him to beat some nearby sailors to the last bike available. In Iceland, Mitty’s life is saved by a local who, against all sense, comes and finds him before a volcano kills him. Later, we meet a threatening warlord who likes pastries. The point is that you find these people everywhere: that you should not judge a book entirely by its cover, and in showing us these people and the impact that they have on Mitty, Stiller shows us a little bit about the world too. Making a connection, with people outside of the landscape of iPhones, laptop screens and urban jungles, might be a generic message, but when portrayed in this way, I think that it is an effective one.
All that growth and enjoyable journey is suddenly aborted though, as Mitty is called home to face the music over his missing photograph. He finds some assertiveness now, standing up, in vain, to his previous tormentor, but still finds himself suddenly unemployed. He works up the courage to actually track Cheryl down and maybe pursue a relationship with her, but balks when it appears that she may have resumed her previously ended marriage – the sort of thing that could be viewed as almost admirable (considering they have a son), if it wasn’t so overtly cowardly, a step backwards for Mitty.
The result is a very real and relatable frustration for Mitty. He was doing the right things by himself, going out, seeing the world, living. But he gets nothing for it, and in fact, winds up with less than when he started. And he still has to find the “quintessence of life”. But, with no apparent way of solving the mystery of Sean O’Connell’s whereabouts, he abandons the quest, dumping the wallet he received from the photographers as a gift, choosing to ignore the message inscribed on it.
At that moment, at that low, Mitty receives new hope, from the base that has been one of the only overtly positive relationships of his life before his transformation. Mitty was willing to throw away all of his dreams and ambitions to help his widowed mother, a woman who, in classic maternal fashion, does not show any outward signs of gratitude, but bears a very clear and obvious affection for her son, one that is not quite shared by his mooching and unsympathetic sister. Mitty is later heartbroken when they are forced to sell her piano to make ends meet, seeing it as the ultimate sign of his failure to live up to his father’s example, but then his mother grants him the ability to keep his own journey going, the right kind of pay-off for that relationship.
Time for one more trip, this time into even more extreme territory. On the slopes of the Himalayas, Mitty finally finds what he is looking for. Of everything in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, this is probably the most extreme, the idea that Mitty could just climb Himalayan mountains on a whim, but I am willing to overlook this apparent plot hole for the beauty that followed. Mitty finally finds O’Connell, leading to a slightly surreal but engrossing dialogue between the two. The title character has only found O’Connell through a series of odd coincidences and happenstances, adding to the surreal ambiance and feeling that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is some sort of neo-fairytale, but still effective in its own way, treading that line between outright fantasy and fantastical plot elements within reality.
Mitty, in somewhat stereotypical fashion, finds out that he had what he was looking for all along, a clear metaphor for some of his internal issues, and then receives an abject lesson in choosing to live in and enjoy the moment on occasion. Sometimes you just don’t have to take the picture. Sometimes, what we do doesn’t have to have a tangible end goal, although plenty of times it does. Mitty has pursued O’Connell with an obsession that is an extreme form of how he looked after his financial accounts in the first scene, but now comes to realise that, while worthy goals, you don’t have to take them quite so seriously as you may think.
There follows one of the more emotive scenes of the production, as understated and minimalist as the opening but no less effective: O’Connell and Mitty just playing football with some of the natives, and enjoying themselves, being in that moment. It is a strangely connective moment, that encompassed some of the central themes of the movie but also spoke to me as a fan of football, encapsulating the appeal of something as simple as kicking a ball around, the basic humanity and friendship that such a thing can create and showcase.
From there, it’s on to the conclusion. Another criticism I would level at The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is that its finale is a bit too long, too obsessed with wrapping certain things up and maybe giving Mitty too much of a positive conclusion as a person. He gets to have an emotional moment with his mother, he gets to put down Adam Scott’s character in memorable fashion, he gets to write CV that is far more expansive than it could have been and he gets to make a connection with Cheryl. Life turns out just fine for Walter Mitty, but maybe we didn’t need to see all of it.
That is not to say that those scenes are bad, just elements of them were superfluous. I really did like the final scene, and the final revelation of “the quintessence of life”, an image of Mitty himself, working away diligently on the negatives he has spent his career caring for, with a magazine called “LIFE” dedicated to those “who made it”. Now that was an emotional pay-off and a perfect juxtaposition with Adam Scott’s planned final cover, a solemn, near morbid declaration of “The End of LIFE” (which, coincidently, was a lot closer to the actual final cover of LIFE magazine, title “A LIFE Ends”). Instead, Mitty see’s the start of life, or at least the resumption of one he has made again, this time hand in hand with someone, an emotional connection which doubles the previous pay-off. The contrast between the opening and closing scenes is obvious and probably deliberate: Mitty started out alone, fretting over making even the most inconsequential connection with someone like Cheryl, and now he walks away from his previous life holding her hand, a wonderful image to close out on, and end of a very well-presented journey.
A few other things to note before I move on. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is not a comedy, and could, at most, be described as a “dramedy”. But it still has plenty of humour in it, usually just short asides or sudden one-liners. Little humour is built up, there are few “setup/payoff” type scenarios, but I still found myself laughing. Stiller knows funny, this is undeniable, and he has been involved in so many different kinds of comedy by now that if anyone can insert humour into a more serious story, it’s him. The jokes are worked in well here, never detracting too much from the seriousness of the larger story, never lessening the emotional impact of other moments. Probably the most eye-raising skit is a daydream that serves as a parody of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and maybe these kinds of movies in general.
Mitty is a miserable and desperate man, trapped in a world of repetitiveness in all aspects of his life.
I also found it interesting that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was wrapped around a sub-plot involving Todd, the rep from eHarmony who Mitty stays in contact with throughout the movie. I’m not sure that the final meeting with Todd in L.A. was very necessary, and it didn’t really add much to me appreciation of the story, other than to put a face on somebody who had played a part in Mitty’s journey, but not a very important one. But the phone calls during the rest of the movie I found far more interesting and funny, as they marked waypoints where Mitty could outline clearly just where he was going and how much he had changed.
I think that some might criticise or, worse, dismiss The Secret Life of Walter Mitty as just standard Christmas movie fare, the sort of sickeningly positive story that could not find as much of an audience elsewhere in the calendar. I don’t really think such a criticism is fair. I’m judging The Secret Life of Walter Mitty on its merits, not on its planned release date, and I still loved it. Moreover, I think the kind of positive message that this film gives out is one that is badly needed sometimes, in a world where CGI, gun battles and generic romance often dominate the big screen. If the Christmas market is the time of year that attracts these kinds of productions, then so be it.
Lastly, before I go into the other sides of the production, I’d like to say that I think this is as good an adaptation of Thurber’s short story as was possible to make. It retains the key elements of that story – the everyman, the daydreams, the sense of desperation – and then manages to craft a very enjoyable and impressive story with them, giving us a character journey that is well worth following, an inner message that is laden with positive feelings and an ending that is both satisfying and capable of connecting deeply with the audience.
In terms of cast, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is fairly minimalist, with one main player, three secondary characters of import and a smattering of tertiary. But what that cast is able to achieve is impressive in and of itself.
Stiller is our everyman. His performance of Mitty, from the quietly frustrated individual of the first scene to the more confident, forward-looking man of the conclusion was not a classic of the craft, nor Stiller’s very best effort ever. Mitty is the kind of character who was never going to require a great deal of emoting, and for large parts, the way to make him work as a character is was to play him as bland as possible.
For that first half, Stiller’s Mitty is unassuming, understated, the only trait being given off being one of quiet and building desperation. Stiller is able to break out of this all too briefly in the daydreams, but there are so quick as to be almost negligible in terms of acting performance.
No, the act one Mitty is acted well, just very reserved. It is when he opens up that Stiller actually succeeds the most. He has to portray a man who is experiencing something that has been so distant as to be wholly new, a sort of joy and wonder that has to be done just right so as to be believable without being soppy. I think Stiller achieves that, starting with his longboard ride in Iceland, and continuing through his trip to Afghanistan and beyond. Seeing Mitty come out of his shell, whether it is in the enjoyment of certain things or in standing up to those who oppressed him, are moments that resonate a bit better because of the commitment that Stiller brings to them, of the quiet desperation flooding over and breaking out.
And there are other, quiet moments that draw kudos from me, like Mitty with his mother in the piano store, struggling to put into words the kind of failure he feels by his presence there or Mitty in the Greenlandic bar contemplating following his heart or the logic of staying behind. Stiller will win no awards for his work in front of the camera here, but he gives Mitty just what he needs, envisions that journey that he goes on, and makes the connection with the audience. He isn’t over the top (except in some daydreams, obviously) and he isn’t irredeemably glum like you might expect him to be played. What he is, is pretty much exactly as I would have envisioned a modern Mitty. Stiller has met expectations.
This being a story about Walter Mitty, the rest of the cast pale in comparison to the effect that Stiller’s character has. Kristen Wiig is a fine actress, who could maybe do with a few more slightly serious roles like this one. Her part is surprisingly small for the presence and impact that her character has in the course of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and I suppose it is fair to say that she is never really able to breakout much and do anything that notable. We do come to understand just what Mitty see’s in her: she’s an individual with a somewhat hidden bubbly side, who is kind to Mitty when few others are and is both a loving mother and a friendly co-worker. The few actual scenes she shares with Mitty are engaging if not quite riveting, and if The Secret Life of Walter Mitty really wanted her to be seen as more important, then it maybe should have dedicated just a bit more time to her, and to exploring just why Mitty considers her such a person to strive towards. Perhaps she could have joined him on the mission to the Himalayas, but the inclusion of a son – a decision probably taken to try and invoke some fatherly feelings/memories in Mitty more than anything else – forces her to be grounded, which is a shame.
Adam Scott is the villain of the piece. In terms of creating a really nasty, easily detestable character, he succeeds in all the right ways, with the general attitude, the ridiculous beard, the general ignorance of how LIFE operates and the never-ending tirade of bullying and jeers directed at Mitty (and a few others). There are few people in life we are more likely to detest than the kind of person whom Scott inhabits in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Therein lies the problem of course, in that his Ted is a pantomime villain, very over the top and who fails to really hit the right mark with me because of it. Perhaps, as already discussed, Stiller was pulling a bit of a meta-commentary on our own expectations of villains, and if so, fair play to him, but I have my doubts. Scott, outside of his comedic comfort zone, does fine with what he is given, but that doesn’t make it a good character.
Sean Penn has only one brief scene, but nails the part required spectacularly.
Sean Penn has only one scene in the movie, but his presence is felt throughout, the central focus of Mitty’s quest and journey. The build-up to his reveal is so teased out and delayed that I wondered if the inevitable meeting could possibly life up to expectations, but I’m happy to say that it did. Penn only has a few minutes, but manages to be quietly serious, darkly funny and genuinely moving in those minutes, a top notch effort from a top notch actor, who delivers one of the key messages of the film and did it beautifully.
Onto the somewhat lesser players then. Patton Oswalt is Todd, mostly a VA role before his one scene near the conclusion. Slightly hippyish and very laid back, he was a suitable narrator for some of the plot points that Mitty was going through, and managed to capture a little bit of the L.A. archetype in his few minutes onscreen, though the unnecessary nature of that scene might have damaged him a little. Shirley MacLaine is Mitty’s quiet but singularly moving mother, with the screeching and effectively irritating Kathryn Hahn as his layabout sister. Terence Bernie Hines is brief but effective as Mitty’s struggling co-worker Gary, while Ólafur Darri Ólafsson is brief but memorable as “the pilot” who drunkenly ferry’s Mitty from one place to another.
While none of the tertiary cast lights the world on fire, they keep things rolling, and those playing the friends that Mitty meets throughout the world are able to imbue the production with a sense of connectivity in their interaction with Mitty, which is impressive given the brevity in which they were asked to do it.
Aside from being an attempt to turn Thurber’s story into a viable movie, Stiller and director of cinematography Stuart Dryburgh also wanted to create a very engrossing visual experience, and I think that they achieved a measure of triumph on that criteria. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty looks absolutely stunning as a movie in a variety of different ways.
Stiller prefers the wide shot, even in internal scenes. There are remarkably few close ups in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, even on the more intimate moments, and as a director Stiller appears to prefer taking in as much of the environment as possible, even if that environment is deceptively bland. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a story that matches its plot with the visual environment, juxtaposing Mitty’s circumstances with the kind of buildings and locations he finds himself in.
In the opening scenes, he’s just another cog in an unfeeling employment machine, wandering around similar apartment blocks in similar streets with similarly dressed people. In LIFE magazine he’s surrounded by the images of the things he wants to be but feels he can never aspire to, pictures set into plain white walls, like windows on his subconscious. His workspace is a dark basement, his apartment is an irritatingly neat living environment.
It’s when Mitty starts to live a little that we see the change, all of that sort of stuff coming in wide open spaces, with an emphasis on an airy, almost refreshingly cold feeling in Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan. So powerful are these vistas, so entrancing are the mountains and seas, that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty almost comes off as a tourism brochure on film. The areas visited do have some wonderful landscapes to show off, not least the Icelandic volcano or the upper reaches of the Himalayas, but there is a slight sense of going too far on occasion, of the director gorging himself on the real-life visuals. We see it in the costuming department too, as Mitty exchanges drab and boring work clothes for a woollen jumper soaked in water and marked by stains, a far more interesting look for the character to mark his changed circumstances out.
Other shots that come to mind especially is stuff like Mitty under the Atlantic ocean, lost in a encompassing force of calm amid greater violence and turmoil above, or the use of LIFE magazines motto on the background of Mitty’s initial journey is Greenland, one taken on an absurdly sized jet. Maybe my favourite might be the simple sequence of Mitty and O’Connell playing football in the Himalayas, a very touching but altogether basic sequence.
In terms of other visuals, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty does a below-average job when it comes to the few CGI choices, like the superhero-style battle in Mitty’s daydreams or the encounter with the sharks, the stuff that looks poor even on the big screen, but was just clearly not a priority when it came to the visual direction. Still, it being the imagination, you’d imagine it would look a lot realer.
That’s a fairly small complaint though, and I have to recognise that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was never going to be the kind of movie that would focus much on computer work. Instead, Stiller is more than happy to take us up and look down on our world, be it the cityscape of New York, the valleys of Iceland or snow-capped roof of the world in central Asia. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a stunning visual experience, and achieves this while only slightly distracting from its actual plot.
The Mitty/Cheryl relationship forms a decent parallel to Mitty’s main journey.
It’s a good script too, very good even, that Sturat Conrad has come up with. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty might not win any awards for its wordplay, but the script spoke to me in a way that other movies have failed to do for a while. Mitty’s larger silence and desperation works, but his character also comes out when he speaks, in his faint whines to Todd about his failure in approaching Cheryl, in his stuttering responses to Ted, in his later opening up about his father’s death or about his quest to find Sean Penn’s character. This is the Mitty story, so it was essential that he be written well, and I think that he has, capturing that solemnity, that low place that he finds himself at the start compared to the higher triumph of the conclusion. “I haven’t…really..done anything…” he manages to eke out in an early scene, as if ashamed of himself, juxtaposed nicely with the more relaxed, jokey individual of the final scenes, who is happy with what he has achieved in the course of the movie.
And everyone else is written just fine, save perhaps for Adam Scott. Of all its script work though, what I liked most in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was the use of an abbreviated quotation from LIFE founder Henry Luce as a means of framing the entire story and Mitty’s pursuit of life itself in all of its glory. I loved the sequence where the words are introduced and emphasised, I think that it fit the bill perfectly:
“To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things-machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work-his paintings, towers, and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed…”
While not a strict comedy, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty finds plenty of room for humour, and it nearly all lands perfectly. Mitty’s daydream comebacks to Ted are amusing, the helicopter pilots tale of woe in a sparsely populated Greenland is great, the Benjamin Button parody is nailed really well. There is anawkwardness about the humour, of simply showing Mitty reacting to his circumstances, old and new, but I think it is very favourable for the kind of movie on display here. My favourite might have been one of the very final lines, where Mitty walks away from the final issue of LIFE, the one with his picture on it, and then sheepishly admits he wanted to buy it but was worried how that would look to his new beau.
Theodore Shapiro, a long time Stiller collaborator, has crafted a competent score, that adds to the unfolding drama and visual treats admirably, without ever really threatening to become something of a much more memorable quality. Better is the soundtrack, with a great collection of indie and lesser known material, not least “Dirty Paws” from Of Monsters and Men and “Step Out” by Jose Gonzalez and St. Vincent, two songs whose tune and lyrics match and build-up the experience nicely.
And so, to themes. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a deep, thoughtful movie, the kind that crafts its inner messages as much with imagery as it does with word and plot. The story of Mitty is a very literary, metaphorical one in so many respects after all, and I probably couldn’t hope to mention every last deeper meaning behind words, phrases, shots and angles.
But the most obvious one is the issue of reality vs. fantasy, carried out in the constant dichotomy between Mitty’s real life and the life that he likes to escape into. Mitty is a miserable individual, so far from asserting himself on his environment and living the life that he would like to live that he almost seems to actively avoid the possibility at the start. For him, reality is a dreary thing, but a dreary thing that he is locked into, a prison that teenaged responsibility has put him in. There is only one escape, in the place without bars, the fleeting world of his day dreams.
There, Mitty is a hero. He saves lives. He puts down the bullies with just a sentence. He smashes through his problems with ease. He’s a smooth talker, everything that Cheryl, the imaginary one, wants him to be. He can go anywhere, do anything, even something as aloof as “testing the limits of the who-mun esperience” as his Latino stand-in proclaims during one of the more vivid examples.
But while Mitty can find that needed escape in such visions, he still isn’t really happy in them, because all such visions have to end, usually with a degree of embarrassment for the fact that he has been “zoned out” so much. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a journey alright, and, as mentioned, it is the journey of the Mitty character, between his start point of being miserably satisfied with the imaginary wanderings, to a man who won’t settle for that anymore, and rejects them.
His actual journey is one rooted in several clumps of cliché, almost adding to the feeling that he is on some sort of quasi-fairy tale for a modern era, but the dream world recedes behind him all the while. The all out action fantasy of fighting his boss across the streets of New York turns to things more subtle and endearing, as simple as Cheryl singing a song to him as an encouragement, before they vanish altogether, no longer required, as Mitty has found the joys of life in reality, something far preferable to the unfulfilling filler of his imaginary wanderings. In a story about that difference, reality is unrelenting portrayed, by the conclusion, as the better choice that leads to personal growth and more healthy relationships.
When Mitty feels joy, so does the audience, a “quintessence of life”.
The other theme that is very obvious is a dual one of “living” and of enjoying the moment. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a story about life, and how it is something to be seized and enjoyed, before it is too late. The message of the movie is that life is not something to be whiled away in abject misery, patiently counting off the days until death. Life is to be found outside of the norm, away from comfort zones, out in the “real” world, far removed from the fantasies that might sustain us in darker moments.
Mitty wants to go out and find a life worth living, and find someone to live it with, but initially lacks the will to go out and do it, still tied to the responsibilities he stepped out of adolescence attached to. Push, comes to shove, and he has no choice but to make a go of it. On the surface, he’s doing it to just track down a photo and save his job, but it is obvious to all and sundry that this is only a vague excuse, and that Mitty has found a new avenue in his world that he wants to explore, for his own enjoyment and for the chance to grow enough that he might be deserving of Cheryl’s affections.
Mitty finds this through some extreme adventures in the far reaches of the Earth, but the point of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is not that life is to be found hiking through Iceland or climbing mountains. It is if that is what you are looking for, but life – that is, “living” – is found in precious moments, moments that can be found in any real activity, as long as they are special, help us grow, leave us amazed at the power and diversity of the world we live in. Those moments can be few and far between, and we must learn to live through them and with them, enjoying them for everything they have to offer, to not be caught up in material pursuits and tangible pay-offs at all times. This appears to be a preachy message from my writings, but it is demonstrated in a much more subtle way on film.
By the conclusion, Mitty has figured out the way that he can improve his life – away from his work basement, with friends and others, free of his dependence on intricate day dreams. He goes out to find his moments to live in, that don’t necessarily have to involve jumping out of a helicopter.
In connection to life though, there is a theme of adventure. Mitty is a boring, bland individual, his sole excitement being a telephone call to a customer service rep. Once he leaves New York, he is swept up into something else entirely, a journey that involves thrills and extremes, very much in line with the imagination of Thurber. Mitty grows through seeking these adventures, and adventure is shown quite clearly as a method of facilitating growth, of changing people for the better by putting them through the metaphorical wringer. People like Sean O’Connell live on a never ending edge, brushing with death and danger constantly, and seem like happier, if slightly more unhinged, people for it, far happier than Mitty. When Mitty gets his adventure, he is no longer such a wallflower afterwards, even if his future life may not contain so much excitement.
Within the sub-plot that revolved around Adam Scott’s character, and in the people that Mitty meets, there is another clear theme: “Do unto others”. Ted is the worst kind of person, a man who belittles as he casually destroys, all in the name of a higher corporate progress. Mitty might be a meaningless drone, but he is still a far better man than Ted is, as he remains kind and compassionate towards others even in his own hidden depression. Ted is openly brash and aggressive, over-compensating for something clearly, in his very mannerisms and even in his facial hair. He is a downsizer, and takes that responsibility to mean that he has to cut people down to size, in every insult and rude gesture.
Through the course of his journey, Mitty meets a lot of people, people whom he helps and whom he receives help from in return, whether it was a helicopter ride, being plucked from the ocean, saved from a volcano or helped up a mountain. He makes those connections, and meets people who are willing to stick their necks out to help their fellow man in dire moments, the very essence of a humanity that, Mitty is largely cut off from in New York.
When he returns, he does so full of purpose, dressing down Ted very pertinently and purposefully, no longer the cringing weakling, but a person who has come to understand, intimately, that people have to look out for each other if it is in their power, and that if we are forced to undertake a cruel job, we are under no compulsion to make it worse than it has to be. We must do unto others as it would have them do unto us, something Ted is flabbergasted to be confronted with, and that Mitty, long past the point of caring too much what Ted thinks, now takes as an inalienable aspect of his being.
Lastly, I want to talk a bit about a theme of change and escape, and how the two interact. Mitty only finds escape when he changes things around him. At first, he does this through temporary, fleeting daydreams of no consequence. Later, he changes his life by changing his surroundings and his circumstances in a very tangible way. That offers a more permanent escape, the kind of thing that people like Ted don’t appear capable of (or interested in) doing with their shallow lives. He goes out, meets some unique people, has some unique experiences, and comes back changed. It is not a change into a completely new person, but rather an embrace of former aspects of himself that he was forced to cast aside, that allow him to be a more confident, outgoing and generally fearless kind of person, an escape that we can cheer for, an escape from a very deep and pitiful misery.
Now, just as in the lyrics of David Bowie that dream-Cheryl sings out when Mitty is wavering in his quest, the title character can appreciate that there is more to life then daydreams, and that changing your place in the world, in both a literal and figurative way, is very much worthwhile. It can be a refreshing experience, being close to the things that up to then you have previously only thought upon, and can totally change your outlook on life and yourself:
“This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door,
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way,
And the stars look very different today.”
In conclusion, I think that I can understand some of the negativity that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is getting from critics (it currently stands at 36% on Rotten Tomatoes for example). The film has a message that could be easily seen as too positive, as standard Christmas waffle with a whiff of Oscar-bait to it as well. It has a limited cast, and plenty of elements that could be described as generic.
But I still loved this movie. It has an inner proclamation of total joy and wonder, a celebration of humanity and the planet we live in through the people Mitty meets and the places that he goes, through the script and through its camerawork. It present a fully-realised and three dimensional Mitty in the form of Stiller’s performance, a man we want to see succeed because we can see so much of ourselves in him, and whose success is a source of happiness for us. The supporting cast is limited in many respects, but still do acceptable jobs of helping Stiller do the business with his titular character. The general plot is am enjoyable trek, excellently paced and interspersed with plenty of very fun, humorous moments that supplement when they could easily detract from the experience. The camerawork is phenomenal in showing us the landscapes of Mitty’s journey, from a limiting office to the wide open wonders of the Himalayas. The script offers many beautiful dialogues and moments, and the music, while not overtly-stellar, does a competent effort at adding to the emotion.
But I will still always come back to the positive, shining light of this movie, a different kind to the more unsubtle stuff Pacific Rim tried to peddle earlier this year. In that respect, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is more in line with the tale of Jean Val Jean in Les Miserables (which, at time of writing, remains my film of the year) in that it showcases a man, suffering serious problems, who finds the ability to change his fate and make a better life for himself. This kind of message might not be rare in Hollywood exactly, but it is certainly rare that it is told in this kind of fashion, a memorable trip through effective characterisation that ends in such a manner that the viewer can feel totally satisfied, with a moving catharsis achieved through the triumph of one Walter Mitty.
A wonderful shining light of a movie, that comes highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox ).