You could be forgiven for never having read James Thurber’s 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” for The New Yorker or for not having seen the eponymous 1947 movie adaptation, since neither tend to be as famous today as they would deserve to be. Indeed, on Empire Magazine’s list of Top 500 films, it only made it onto 479th place, even though it has been fundamental in inspiring the heroic daydreaming trope.
Thurber was dismayed with the 1947 adaptation, as he made clear in a letter to Life magazine at the time, and while we will never know what his opinions on Ben Stiller’s adaptation are – he died in 1961, and the movie has very little in common with his, largely plotless, short story or indeed the classic film – it has a lot of merits and is a fantastic feel-good comedy.
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn Jr., the son of the 1947’s movie producer, Ben Stiller plays the titular character of Walter Mitty who works, in a wonderfully ironic nod to Thurber, in the photolab of Life magazine. He is madly in love with the newly hired girl upstairs, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) and frequently zones out when he has one of his daydreams of leading a much more interesting, heroic life. Cheryl isn’t the only new face at the company however, as Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) introduces himself to staff as the transition manager – the transition of shutting down Life as a print magazine and becoming online-only, all while laying off most of the staff. As the antagonist, Ted is a slick bully with a beard that makes him look like an arrogant, corporate idiot. As an actor, Adam Scott gets to show off his talent with a character infinitely nastier than his lovable geek on Parks & Recreation.
A love story about a daydreaming guy doesn’t offer many new creative challenges, and this is where Goldwyn Jr. and Stiller decided to make Walter’s life more complicated. Life’s go-to photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) with an anachronistic penchant for SLRs has sent Walter a wallet and some negatives, asking for frame twenty-five to be considered for the final cover. He calls it his most accomplished photograph ever, ‘The Quintessence of Life’, yet much to Walter’s and his assistant’s horror, that exact frame is missing and they can’t seem to find it anywhere in the lab.
In between discussing his eHarmony profile with a guy from customer support called Todd (Patton Oswalt), Walter manages to strike up a friendship with Cheryl, who convinces him to track down Sean and find the photograph. And so, Walter jumps on a plane to Greenland, and his real life slowly becomes a lot more interesting and heroic than his daydreams have ever been. Indeed, his travels lead him from Greenland to Iceland and even as far as the Himalayas. He jumps out of a helicopter, travels through a war-torn country and skateboards towards an erupting volcano (the infamous Eyjafjallajökull).
If you’ve seen the trailer, you might be surprised to learn that “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” isn’t a story about finding love. It is a story about a man finding himself. The breathtaking scenery of Iceland, where much of the first half of the film is set, definitely helps with creating a sense of awe, but it is in the details where the movie truly shines. Throughout the film, we see small glimpses of who Walter really is underneath his shell, most notably during a particularly powerful scene where he teaches Cheryl’s son how to skateboard and later on during the revelation of why he turned into such a socially awkward man.
You might think you know why Walter couldn’t find the negative. You might think you know what the photograph is. You’ll probably be wrong. The story is a blend of funny, sad and surreal moments and fantasies, and if you find the final scene anything but heartwarming, you might have to check if your heart is still functioning properly.
Ben Stiller has made funnier movies, but he has never made a more honest one. The transitions between real life and Walter’s fantasy worlds are seamless and frequently feature subtle, perfect blending of both worlds, sometimes when snow flies across the office, and sometimes with words that ingeniously appear in the scenery. Stiller’s held-back use of CGI is refreshing to see in an age when more is often considered better, and apart from a sarcastic reference to Fincher’s adaptation of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, the movie thankfully holds back on overly sweet imagery as much as it holds back on special effects.
Patton Oswalt and Sean Penn may have deserved more screen time, but they excel in their short appearances, and anything else would arguably have distracted from the aloneness that allows Walter to find his courage. Overall, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a beautiful piece of cinema, a poignant Bildungsroman-type drama as much as an uplifting comedy, with a brilliant performance by Stiller and cinematography that’ll take your breath away. It is one of the most memorable movies of the season and one that invites multiple viewings.
At 114 minutes, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” lacks any boring moments and isn’t one minute too long.