The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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“And time yet for a hundred indecisions/And for a hundred visions and revisions,/Before the taking of a toast and tea./In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo./And indeed there will be time/To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare/”

T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock 1915

We all have secret lives, that second self that lives beneath the skin,  the movie that plays in the mind, showing the life we desire yet dare not attempt. It is no wonder that James Thurber’s short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1939), has become part of our culture, the name of its protagonist the dictionary term for a certain approach to life. Who is Walter Mitty? He’s a man whose imagination takes him far beyond the confines of his ordinary life, lapsing into daydreams sparked by the details of his surroundings. Yet the gap between dreams and reality never spurs him into action. Never living in the moment, always elsewhere, Walter Mitty is a perpetual escapist.

Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig in a fantasy scene from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig in a fantasy scene from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Film is the medium for escapism, one might say, the quintessence of escapism. Many of us, this writer included, go to the cinema for that break from reality, the ability to experience vicariously, on the big screen, amazing adventures that are larger than our own lives. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a story that wants to be onscreen. There was a 1947 version directed by Norman McLeod, starring Danny Kaye, and now Ben Stiller directs and stars as Walter in the 2013 production of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; both films depart from Thurber’s original text to create their own fantasy.

There is a gentle irony to Ben Stiller’s Walter, who works at Life magazine, as a “negative assets manager.” Like T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, Walter doesn’t dare do much. Yes, there is the rather less than subtle joke: Walter Mitty works at Life, but does not really live it, yet there is more to the picture – and more to Walter – than meets the eye.

One first sees Walter tallying up the expenses that make up his life: moving his mother’s piano, membership in an online dating site. His white button down shirt and tie, the minimalist decor of his meticulously ordered surroundings manage to convey a black and white sensibility to this first scene, exuding the feel of a bygone era. The heyday of Life magazine was a time when photojournalism was perceived as a heroic endeavor, and long form journalism was actually read all the way through. Magazines like Life let readers know that there was a huge, wonderful world out there, waiting to be experienced.

Not that I’m complaining. The digital era fulfills the promise of Life and other such magazines of the 20th century, taking us virtually everywhere. It’s just worth remembering that the wonders of the world are out there, and we can actually do the things we dream.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) and co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig)
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) and co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig)

Walter, on the other hand, has difficulty deciding to send a virtual “wink” via an online dating site to Cheryl (Kristin Wiig), someone he sees every day at work. He is attracted to Cheryl, but doesn’t quite dare ask her out. In a world where everyone is trying to be fast, tough, snarky and cool, Walter feels inadequate.

Much of the fun in this film is the dizzy sense of fantasy within fantasy: after all, everything we see onscreen is fictional, and within this fiction are Walter’s fantasies. There is a smooth flow between Walter’s external reality and his daydreams. A dog barks, the sound catches Walter’s attention, and then he jumps through the window of an exploding building to save Cheryl’s dog. The fantasies reveal the hidden Walter, a Walter that his co-workers, friends and family don’t get to see. At the very least, the man has quite an imagination.

Walter (Ben Stiller) and enigmatic photographer Sean O'Connell
Walter (Ben Stiller) and enigmatic photographer Sean O’Connell

Stiller indulges his predilection for the outrageous in the fantasy scenes, much to the film’s benefit. The rest of the time he plays Walter with a restraint that allows the viewer to empathize with Walter rather than mock him. Initially rather withdrawn and subdued, even his physical appearance seems pinched-in, pale, inward-directed, Walter changes through the film in a way that feels if not entirely credible, then at least very acceptable within the bounds of a film based on fantasy. Those blue eyes open wide (where did those glasses go?), he looks outward, and it gives him a whole new look.

It’s not a subtle film, it’s not meant to be. It’s fun. Visually the film is very well conceived, with some breathtaking landscapes and overall appealing design. Kristen Wiig makes a lovely romantic lead, and Sean Penn does rugged outsider really, really well. Ólafur Darri Ólafsson is charming and funny in a crucial scene. Comedy, romance, action-adventure – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has a bit of everything, and a dreamy soundtrack featuring José González, Junip and a new mix of David Bowie’s Space Oddity with Kristen Wiig on vocals. In a world where everyone is trying to be fast, tough, snarky and cool, maybe the hero is that guy who quietly goes about doing what needs to be done.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Directed by Ben Stiller; Screenplay by Steve Conrad based on the short story by James Thurber; Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Jon Daly, Kathryn Hahn, Terence Bernie Hines, Adam Scott, Patton Oswalt, Shirley MacLaine, Sean Penn.