Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) sported a mohawk as a young boy, skateboarded with his friends, and had an idealistic image of how he would live his life. But along the way, reality caught up to him. The monotony of daily life took over his identity, and Walter found himself working as a negative asset manager for Life magazine, living an adventurous life vicariously through photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn).
Walter “zones out” constantly and day dreams that he’s another man, one less suppressed by the world and more in control of his own destiny. Sometimes his dreams mold perfectly into reality, culminating in a beautiful, surreal amalgam. Other times they are less enchanting, becoming manic special-effects-ridden spectacles that don’t fit well with the tone of the film – in fact, they sometimes detract from it. While they work to add to the depth of the themes and characters, toning them down wouldn’t hurt at all.
Much like its protagonist, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty suffers from an identity crisis, unsure if it wants to be a crazy-whacky-fun family comedy or a quieter, sweeter film about a man who is inspired to live a fulfilling life. It’s the latter that works far more, and it’s the former I could do without completely. I found myself wishing Walter’s fantasies were more grounded, giving me more insight into what goes on in his head.
The strange thing is that, while I know The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is flawed (and made a much better trailer than it did a 2 hour film), it still moved me on a level that few other works have accomplished. If you can get past its zany shortcomings, this really is one of the better movies of the year — when the tone and images on screen fall into sync, the result is truly spectacular.
There’s something lifeless about the cinematography and direction – and I mean that as a compliment. Seeing droves of people wearing dull colors, falling in line as they make their way to work is a depressingly accurate view of the business world through the eyes of an artist. This is the world through the lens of any person who doesn’t understand the top-down ethics of the corporate world and isn’t interested in material status.
The visuals on screen demand conformity from us, but the pressure to join the ranks doesn’t stop there. Walter’s new boss at work, Ted (Adam Scott), gets off on picking on him, particularly when he’s enjoying one of his day dreams. Walter’s 16 year perfect record means nothing to the new guy, who lacks any sense of individuality and seems obsessed with his title as guy-in-charge. Once Ted arrives on the scene, the folks at Life cease being people and become resources for the new parent company… Who ironically will still publish an online-only magazine that celebrates human life.
It’s a near guarantee that Walter and his co-workers will all lose their jobs, but that doesn’t stop him from going above and beyond in order to assure the final cover of Life magazine makes it to print. When a negative from Sean O’Connell’s film roll goes missing, Walter travels the globe, venturing into unknown territory in order to track him down. This journey isn’t just about finding a photograph; this is a chance for Walter to reclaim a bit of his soul and live the free-spirited life he always imagined.
It’s never entirely clear what aspects of Walter’s quest are unfolding in reality, but I don’t think I need that question answered. Yes, Walter’s transformation is interesting to see; he finally gets the courage to ask his co-worker (Kristen Wiig) out on a date and he stops taking Ted’s machismo harassment. But I think this is a movie that speaks to the audience more than the characters: it exposes the world for what it is, turns the contemporary view of “success” on its face, and asks us not to sacrifice our identity. It compels the viewer to re-examine what it means to live life, and it inspired me to make changes in the way I live mine.
To many it may be just a feel-good family movie about a guy’s silly dreams. But to those who are willing to look deeper, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an imperfect work of art that sends a warning to your soul, commanding you to remember who you want to be. You owe it to yourself to see this movie. And please don’t be afraid to lose yourself in it — this story is supposed to make you dream.