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9 Jan 2014

Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – And here we are in 2014! Let me first wish you, constant reader, a happy new year. Let’s hope that 2014 sees a lot more content here on Liminality; I will be the first to admit that last year was a bit on the sparse side. Instead of making resolutions, I’m just going to jump right in and write something.

“I would rather see a familiar story well told than a crappy film with a twist that is supposed to blow my mind.”

To kick things off for the year, I’m doing another film review. Last Saturday HJ and I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (henceforth SLWM) and really enjoyed it, and I just wanted to write a little about it here. I’m going to keep this relatively short—and by “relatively short” I mean “not nearly as long as the review for the second Hobbit film,” not necessarily short by ordinary people’s standards. Unlike the second Hobbit film, I didn’t have anything invested emotionally in SLWM, and I also didn’t really have any expectations. But (or perhaps thus?) I ended up enjoying it a lot, and five days later all I can really think about is how I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.

All the lit geeks out there will be aware that SLWM was originally a very popular short story by James Thurber. It has always been a favorite of mine—in fact it was an inspiration for my short story Black & White, the only piece of my own fiction on the main site here (even though I still consider it a draft and someday hope to go back to it and turn it into something worthwhile). If you have not read Thurber’s story, you are truly missing out. But I’m going to do you a solid. I’ve put together a PDF of the short story, all proofed and pretty, to make it easier for you to enjoy this fine piece of literature. That’s just the kind of guy I am. It’s not long at all, so if you haven’t read it, please do so now. I’ll be here when you’re finished.

It will probably come as no surprise that Ben Stiller’s feature-length film deviates significantly from the original material. You may be surprised to learn, however, that there is precedent for this—a film of the same name was made in 1947, and this too was quite different from the original material. Is this deviation a good thing? Well, insofar as a faithful recreation of the source material would probably only last about fifteen minutes or so—maybe a half hour if you really stretched it—I would say that deviation is not only inevitable but welcome. On a deeper, more literary level, though, both of the films not only elaborate on the story, they significantly change the character of Walter Mitty and thus the tone of the entire work. In the short story, the final line (here be spoilers, so, seriously, if you haven’t read the story yet this is your last chance) depicts the protagonist standing before a firing squad, standing “erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.” That is, he does not change over the course of the very short work—which is of course not at all unusual for short story protagonists—he remains the dreamer, seeking refuge from real life in his fantasies. And in these fantasies he is always the same character: strong, stolid, and stoic, with a “faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips.”

In the 2013 adaptation, Walter Mitty begins as such a character, but he goes on a journey. The 1947 version casts our hero as a pulp fiction editor, but the modern version has Walter Mitty as the head of the negative assets department (that is, he handles all of the film negatives) of Life magazine. If this is not a homage to the first film, it as at least a similar tack—both versions of Walter Mitty see adventure pass through their hands every day, but they never actually have their own adventures. The recent film, though, ups the stakes a bit. Walter Mitty in 2013 is a relic of the past in more ways than one: not only is the print magazine shutting down, to be replaced by Life Online, but none of their photographers—save one—even shoot on film anymore. This photographer, the legendary Sean O’Connell, is the catalyst that sets everything in motion and gets Mitty out the door. He sends back a roll of film with instructions that negative #25 should be considered for the final cover, calling it the “quintessence of Life.” The only problem is that negative #25 is missing. Thus begins Mitty’s adventure, one that will take him around the world and back again in search of the missing negative.

I’m not going to bore you with a play-by-play of the film. The individual events in and of themselves are not as important as the whole they create when put together, and that whole is what I can only describe as “a carpe diem film.” So, unless maybe you are ten years old and/or have never seen something like, say, The Dead Poet’s Society or any one of the numerous carpe diem films out there, it is not likely that the message of this film will blow your mind. And, being a carpe diem film, it follows a somewhat predictable pattern, which means that, in addition to not getting your mind blown, you will probably not find yourself surprised by SLWM, either.

That being said, I think that getting your mind blown and being surprised are somewhat overrated. I would rather see a familiar story well told than a crappy film with a twist that is supposed to blow my mind. Fortunately, SLWM is of the former variety: We may know where the journey is going to end up, but getting there sure is a lot of fun. For one, I thought it was a very successful blend of comedy and drama. In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that both HJ and I are fans of Ben Stiller. He may not hit it out of the park every time, but his films are full of laughs, and he has some real classics under his belt. Tropic Thunder, which was probably my favorite Stiller-directed film before this one (I’m still debating whether SLWM will replace it), is pretty much non-stop laughs (not to mention brilliant), but SLWM strikes the right balance between the funny and the serious. However, if you are allergic to Ben Stiller... well, there’s a lot of Ben Stiller in this film. I guess that’s all I can say about that.

In addition to the blend of comedy and drama, part of what makes SLWM a joy to watch is the places that we get to visit with Walter on his journeys. And I can’t really give you specifics after only one viewing, but I was impressed with the cinematography as well, not to mention the use of music (I’ve had David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” stuck in my head all week—and I am not the least bit annoyed by that fact). There are parts that probably stretch believability a bit—I wonder how many Afghan warlords would really be susceptible to bribery by clementine cake—but I was not really thinking too much about these things while I was watching the film. The story naturally has a somewhat fantastical feel to it, almost as if Walter’s imaginings bleed over into real life, but it didn’t feel jarring to me at all.

One more thing I appreciated about the film was that it is a complete story. Let me explain that statement. As the film went on, I began to suspect that negative #25 was a MacGuffin. If you’re not familiar with the term, it refers to a plot device whose only purpose is to drive the story along, but the thing itself ends up being unimportant to the story itself and/or is never explained. If you’ve seen Mission Impossible: 3, for example, the “Rabbit’s Foot” is a classic MacGuffin (I don’t know why that was the first film I thought of, but it was). To get back to SLWM, though, I suspected that the purpose of negative #25 was to get Walter Mitty out the door and started on his adventures, and that it would never be found or explained in the film. I don’t want to spoil the ending (for what that’s worth), but I was glad to see that not only was negative #25 not a MacGuffin, it actually lived up to my expectations. That can be a very hard thing to do when you’ve built something up like that throughout the course of a film, but I thought Stiller pulled it off.

Finally, I wonder if the age of the protagonist had something to do with how much I connected with the film. In real life, Ben Stiller is eight years older than I am, but the character of Walter Mitty is only two years older than me. Granted, his life experience is quite different from my own—unlike Walter Mitty, I have been to some noteworthy places and done a few noteworthy things—but I was still able to empathize with the protagonist. I think when you turn 40, no matter how much you may have done or seen in your life up to that point, at least a small part of you starts asking questions. Did I take the right path? Should I have done things differently? If life is a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, am I going to turn a page a few decades from now and find that I ended up with one of the crappy endings? We start to worry, thinking that we might be locked into a life we’re not even sure we’re happy with. And this is one of the things I really appreciated about SLWM. Here we have a protagonist who is 42 years old, has worked at the same job for 16 years, and has never done anything worth talking about—or, at least, that’s what he thinks, and that’s why he loses himself in imaginary worlds at the drop of a hat. At the end of the film, though, he is a much different man with a much different perspective on life, ready for new adventures.

I remember watching Garden State a few years back. It was definitely a good film, and both HJ and I enjoyed it, but as the protagonist and his friends were a decade younger than we were at the time, we weren’t really sucked into the film. The characters in that film also had very different life experiences—at age 26, I was already living in Korea, most certainly not just waiting for things to happen to me—and the addition of the age gap made it more difficult to empathize. We were watching things happening to other people, and it was fun (and Natalie Portman is adorable, even if she is the quintessential Manic Pixie Dream Girl in this film), but we weren’t really along for the journey. Some time after that, though, we watched Elizabethtown, which was similar in that it was also one of those “finding yourself” types of films that also happens to feature a Manic Pixie Dream Girl character. It was pretty universally panned by critics, but we found that we were able to identify more with the protagonists because they seemed to be at a similar place as us along the road of life. HJ described it as “Garden State for our generation.” Maybe we just lack empathy, but I’ve always found it easier to connect to characters who are closer to me in age.

Speaking of critics, when we got home from watching SLWM, I thought I would look up the film on Rotten Tomatoes and see what its current score was. I was quite surprised to see that it only had a 50% rating on RT at the time. Even after I read through some of the reviews, I remained puzzled. Had these reviewers even seen the same film that I had? One reviewer in particular talks about Mitty “skateboarding away from a volcanic eruption,” which leads me to believe that he fell asleep halfway through and just started making stuff up. Another review, however, did give me a clue as to why so many critics didn’t seem to like it: He talked about the likelihood that cynical viewers would not enjoy the film. That’s got to be it. I can’t really think of another explanation for why this film would be so poorly rated. Although I should also point out that the audience rating on RT was 76% (this gap is even greater at the time of writing, with the critics score at 49% and the audience score at 79%), so maybe it’s just not a critics’ film? It wouldn’t be the first time I enjoyed a film that the critics looked down their noses at.

I’ve started to ramble a bit here, so I think it’s time to wrap this up. In conclusion, I will say that SLWM was not without its flaws, but whatever flaws it might have are fairly inconsequential and far outweighed by its merits. I do not think it deserves the critical lashing it seems to have gotten. I will agree with that one reviewer, though, and say that you should probably avoid this film if you are a cynic. Or allergic to Ben Stiller. If, on the other hand, you enjoy a good carpe diem film and a good adventure, definitely give it a shot.

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