Movie Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
By Matthew Huntley
January 1, 2014
We go to the movies to feel good. Whether this comes from getting a rush, being challenged, or experiencing happiness, sadness, or fear, our underlying hope is the movies will make us feel more alive and fulfilled.
And yet, ironically, the phrase “feel good” often has a negative connotation when it comes to the movies. Perhaps that’s because, despite their positive effects, we assume “feel good” movies are easy to make and there wasn’t a whole lot of thought put behind them - that they adhere to a template and exist mostly to patronize the audience. But if they’re well made, should this matter? If they make us feel good, shouldn’t we be grateful?
It would be fair to call The Secret Life of Walter Mitty a traditional “feel good” movie. It’s light, romantic, innocent and playful, and we know from the get-go a happy, blissful ending is inevitable. And in the grand scheme of things, the story likely won’t surprise anybody. But these aren’t criticisms as much as observations, because the movie is well made and contains both style and substance. We walk away from it not only feeling good, but impassioned, probably because the filmmakers, namely director Ben Stiller, seemed so passionate about making it.
Walter Mitty (Stiller) does indeed have a secret life, or at least there are parts of his life he keeps hidden from the rest of the world. These include the moments Walter “zones out” and imagines himself doing something heroic or being someone else altogether. Sometimes he pictures himself performing acrobatic moves to rescue people from a burning building; or coming up with a really great zinger and telling off a stuck-up, corporate ass-kisser; or imagining himself on the cover of Life Magazine in an astronaut’s uniform underneath the headline, “Making of a Brave Man.”
But Walter’s actual life is nowhere near as exciting as his daydreams. He’s single, withdrawn and afraid to take risks, which is why he hesitates to send a “wink” to Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a co-worker he likes and has found on an online dating service. Even when he does build up the nerve to press the “wink” button, the website won’t allow it because Walter’s profile page is too blank. If he can’t communicate with Cheryl though the Internet, how’s he ever going to talk to her in person?
Walter has other problems on his plate. His employer, Life magazine, has just announced it will stop publishing hard copies and become a solely online periodical. In addition to potentially losing his job, this is especially troubling news for Walter because, as the negative assets manager, he can’t find the negative that was to be used as the cover for the final issue. It was sent to him by Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), his reliable photojournalist contact whom he’s never met. And because O’Connell says the photo “captures the Quintessence of Life,” the pressure is on to find number 25.
With Cheryl’s help, Walter does some investigating and uses the other negatives from O’Connell’s roll to piece together clues as to where the elusive photographer might be and hopefully track him down. The only problem is O’Connell could be anywhere in the world, but rather than miss yet another boat, Walter decides to take a chance and sets out on a journey to find him. Where his clues take him and what experiences and life lessons they provide, I’ll let you discover, but needless to say, they prove to be a lot more valuable than any reverie.
At this point, you probably have a good idea where the movie is going. But I think it’s a sign of just how well made a movie is that, in spite of us being mindful of its overall trajectory, we’re still compelled to watch it, not least because it keeps us smiling. The film is also technically beautiful, with Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography taking full advantage of the locations by showing us sweeping, magnificent shots of various country and mountainsides.
Most of all, though, the movie has a great big heart, thank a lot to its enormously likable hero. Ben Stiller has always been one of nicest of actors, and his shtick could arguably get old, but here his persona and demeanor are pitch perfect for the role and he comes across as simply genuine. We can’t help but root for and love Walter, just as his mom (Shirley MacLaine) and sister (Kathryn Hahn) do.
We’re inclined to think movies like this are a dime a dozen, or lack real depth, but it’s been a while since I’ve felt this warm, happy and touched by a movie all in one fell swoop. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is able to accomplish this without being overly contrived or manipulative, even though, like all movies, it is to some degree. Yes, it does feel like sugar for the senses, but sometimes we need that, but luckily Walter Mitty doesn’t go overboard.
During the movie, I questioned whether Walter’s adventures were actually happening or if they were just additional “episodes” in which his imagination was running wild. I won’t confirm either way, but one of the messages I think Stiller wanted to get across is that we shouldn’t necessarily think of Walter’s experiences as impossible or out of reach. Why should they be? Any one of us would be wise to heed the movie’s tagline: “Stop daydreaming. Start living.” It’s cheesy, sure, but doing so would probably make us feel good, and isn’t that the point?