Mitty a magical tribute to the possible
While I would hardly call it cutting edge cinema, Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a rather risky proposition in this day and age. As the poet, philosopher and sports agent Jerry Maguire once said, “We live in a cynical world,” and as such we’re always on guard, weary of believing in anything that has the appearance of being innocent or naïve. We don’t want to be taken in; we don’t want to look like a fool when we embrace something as simple and noble as The Golden Rule, only to have our house robbed on Christmas Eve. As such, we suspect anything and everyone and have no problem ripping things to shreds that have an optimistic outlook on life; film critics are often the chief offenders when movies labeled “old-fashioned” come our way.
Stiller has no problem touting notions of this sort in Mitty and I for one applaud his bravery, delivering a $90-million parable about the power that comes with living your life without fear and the notion that small kindnesses and simple joys are what make our time here on Earth worthwhile. Yep, it’s as corny as a three-hanky tearjerker from the silent film era but the movie embraces these notions fully, never once conveying a touch of snarkiness or condescension as it sends its hero – and us – on a globetrotting journey of affirmation that will serve as a sobering wakeup call for those of us adrift in a world of stress, tension and fear.
Much like the hero in James Thurber’s classic short story and the 1947 film version, Mitty (Stiller) is a daydreamer, a modest man prone to flights of fancy in which he sees himself as an erstwhile hero dispatching bad guys, saving pets from burning buildings or sweeping a beautiful woman off her feet. He has time to concoct these fantasies as he lives alone in a small apartment, doesn’t date and works in the basement at Life Magazine, where he is the photo archivist, developing film and cataloging the pictures that have been the bread-and-butter of this periodical. However, Mitty’s world is turned upside down when he receives a roll of film from his favorite photographer Sean O’Connell, a daring journalist who puts himself into hot spots to chronicle the adventure of everyday life. In a message he tells Mitty that the 25th picture on the roll contains the “quintessence of life,” which the archivist mentions to his new boss Ted (Adam Scott) who then plans to use it on the cover of the last issue of the magazine, as they are converting it to an online version, meaning many staffers will lose their jobs. Problem is, the picture isn’t in the roll and in a panic, Mitty sets off to track down O’Connell in an effort to see if he has the snapshot, something that has sparked his curiosity.
What follows is a continent-spanning adventure that takes Mitty to Greenland, Iceland, the Himalayas and many stops in between as he pursues the ever-allusive O’Connell. Along the way, he’s forced to deal with volcanic eruptions, drunk helicopter pilots, dangerous weather and treacherous terrain all the while gaining confidence and perhaps enough courage to ask out his co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a beautiful, outgoing woman that leaves him flummoxed and tongue-tied whenever he approaches her.
Using the death of the print edition of Life magazine as a metaphor for Mitty’s stagnation and the need to evolve as the world changes around you is an obvious one but nonetheless effective. It serves as a plausible launching pad for the character’s own change. Equally clever is using his profession as a still picture archivist (who uses film anymore?) as a way of showing how outmoded his perception of life is. Like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, Mitty has allowed fear to halt his life – he stands frozen in the face of possibility and petrified at the notion he could get hurt if he opens himself up.
The film does a marvelous job of getting us to sympathize with him without ever pitying him, thus making his ultimate life change such a joyous occasion. Stiller does a marvelous job of achieving a sense of the epic here – lovingly capturing the grandeur of inspiring parts of the world most of us will never experience. The film proudly wears its optimistic heart on its sleeve and its sincerity makes it easy to be swept away by its positive worldview … if you’re open to the notion, which can be difficult to do. It’s so much easier to sneer at a movie of this sort and hold it in disdain, and while some may have fun holding Mitty up in ridicule, in the end it’s a petty approach that yields no reward.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org