Written by: Steve Conrad Directed by: Ben Stiller
It’s easy to be dismissive of a film like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The film follows an “inspiration trajectory,” by which I mean its beginning tells us exactly how its going to end. It is the story of Mitty (Ben Stiller) a photography editor for Life magazine who struggles with an inability to form romantic connections, a slightly offbeat (though I wouldn’t say dysfunctional) family and employment precarity, as Life is taken over by a “modernizing” new manager (Adam Scott). Walter’s problems fit into neat thematic categories, so I can understand why certain film critics might be put off by the film’s having a “predictable,” “inspirational” message.
Nonetheless, I am also weary of people deciding whether or not they like a film because of pre-conceived metrics like “predictability” and “preachiness” (in my last few posts I’ve similarly criticized by own heuristic of “subtlety”). The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is particularly cloying in its final moment, but when it comes to appreciating the film, this shouldn’t matter. That’s because, despite being the tale of a spiritual journey, Walter Mitty is decidedly secular.
After a photo by famed photographer James O’Connell goes missing (costing Walter his job), Walter decides to find the photographer, a decision that leads him to overcome his mundane existence and take a helicopter to Greenland. This moment, however, is not a celebration of Walter “facing his fears,” “seizing the day” or some other clichéd value: rather, it’s a mildly captivating moment of magical realist randomness. Smitten by love, and having recently discovered the song “Space Oddity,” Walter takes to the sky. Walter’s journey to Greenland sets up the domino chain of events that define his stories. He proceeds to Iceland, Afghanistan and the Himalayas. Again, one could jump to the conclusion that this trajectory of Walter going from nobody to worldly traveller reeks too much of self-help books to be thematically interesting. This kind of judgement, however, is one I believe critics reach after-the-fact. While watching Walter’s story, I found his character development to be perfectly paced. A weird episode leads him to Greenland, and from there he becomes impressed with his new coolness and experiences self-actualization at a believeable rate. Walter’s character development thus blends in smoothly with his dramatic surroundings. Audiences are thus not left to gaze too closely at the film’s feel good plot, but rather to appreciate the sparkling photography Walter’s journey passes: mirror lakes and abyss-laden mountain ranges.
For a spiritual journey, Walter’s is also a rather silly one. The leadup to his journey features a cutaway to a parody of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The conclusion of his journey introduces him to a spiritual guru of sorts, who in fact is a carelessly playful, not all that insightful, famous actor in an extended-cameo. Along, the way Walter is also exposed to a recurring character (Patton Oswalt) who’s very becoming a recurring character is itself a playful gesture.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is visually ambitious, moderately experimental and certainly has funny moments. These qualities combine to make it at very least an interesting viewing experience. Critics have found reason to criticize it, but, and I levy this criticism cautiously, in this case I feel they are simply thinking too hard, instead of appreciating the easily captivating creative, and sensorial experience that is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.