The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is directed by and stars Ben Stiller. Whilst Stiller is most probably remembered by your average cinephile for his role as Derek Zoolander or for that now infamous scene in There’s Something About Mary, he has now cemented his part, in my view as one of the best directors currently in the business. Showing diversity not only on screen but behind the screen; with an impressive repertoire behind him including directing credits on cult classic; Reality Bites, the divisive black comedy; The Cable Guy, one of my favourite comedies; Zoolander and the box office smash; Tropic Thunder and now with his latest feature, Stiller has indeed revealed himself to be adept at traversing a wide variety of genre and tone in film.
Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the second adaption of James Thurber’s 1939 short story of the same name. In the movie Walter Mitty is a Negative Assets Manager for Life magazine (meaning he processes film negatives) and has been so for 16 years. Having had to enter into the workforce at a young age when his father passed away we get the impression that Mitty does not have much of a personal life and has over the years pushed his own interests and ambitions aside to support his mother and sister. Mitty is a mild mannered person preferring to deal with confronting situations by escaping into his imagination and envisaging his own version of events. In reality however, he is meek and lacking in confidence. When the story starts we are told that Life magazine is under new management and the decision has been made to move the publication from print to online. Mitty is sent a reel of film from famed photographer Sean O’Connell (brought to life by Sean Penn) with an accompanying letter stipulating that negative 25 is the best of O’Connell’s work and is to be used for the cover of the next (and subsequently last) issue of Life magazine. However negative 25 is missing from the reel. This sets in motion Mitty’s journey to track down elusive O’Connell in the hopes of finding out what had happened to and consequently locating negative 25.
Stiller does such a good job in portraying Mitty as the timid, pragamatic but very likeable photography geek, I immediately forget his previous incarnations in his last few comedic films. The supporting cast is great as well, with Kristen Wiig as love interest Cheryl Melhoff, Kathryn Hahn as Mitty’s kooky thespian sister Odessa, Shirley MacLaine as Mitty’s mother, Sean Penn as elusive photographer Sean O’Connell and Adam Scott as arrogant boss Ted Hendricks.
The imagery utilised in the film is nothing short of astounding and is breathtakingly beautiful at times. On his adventures Mitty traverses Greenland, Iceland and through the Himilayas to Afghanistan. The landscape takes focus during these parts of the movie but the story is told as such that I never forget that I’m on this adventure with Mitty, there is a mission to accomplish and the audience is rooting for him to succeed. Though some of the scenes are fantastical the story arch is never given to flights of fancy and every scenerio Mitty encounters serves a purpose. Even in one particular scene where Mitty leaps onto a moving helicopter to the tune of David Bowie’s Space Oddity I believe that this is possible and is happening for a reason. The film is also surprising funny yet the use of humour here is not to distract or mock its characters but to humanise and anchor them in reality.
This film to me is about connecting; connecting with life, with nature and your environment, with the past – who it is you wanted to be and who you are now. It’s about connecting to people, those you know and love and those you haven’t met yet; connecting through a variety of mediums from the old fashioned – letters, photography, keepsakes to the modern – eharmony, cell phones (one of my favourite scenes in the movie is that of Mitty standing in the mountainous wilderness that is the Himalayas receiving a phone call from his customer service rep from dating site eHarmony – points for juxtaposing nature vs the wonders of communications technology and the lone Mitty so isolated from the world yet still connected to an entire social network – fine vision Stiller, bravo).
This film to me is what Eat, Pray, Love should’ve been. This film is a sublimely delicious meal which starts as a quest for a missing film negative and turns into a journey of discovery, of letting go and stepping out of one’s comfort zones - all this wrapped up in a visual feast of panoramic shots of its various settings. If you want to watch a life affirming, inspirational or put simply a quality film this year then do go see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Oh and do yourself a favour and see it at the cinemas – the aesthetics of the film is such that you’ll be short changing yourself to see it on the small screen!