The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty will finish the year out as the most gorgeously shot, beautiful sounding, well-acted film … that could have been so much more.
Based on the short story by James Thurber, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty draws us into the daily drudgery of an office drone at Life Magazine who wishes he had the courage of his daydreams. Walter reflexively ‘zones out’ when reminded of his inadequacies, imagining what he should have done or said. In his fantasies he impresses others by rescuing dogs from exploding buildings and cutting his sarcastic boss down to size. However the news that his magazine will soon be printing its last copy provides him with an opportunity to turn his fancies into reality. A crucial negative goes missing and the only solution is for him to set off into the wilds of Iceland and Nepal to track down the photographer. But, as you might expect, in the process he develops an important perspective on the value of his life so far.
Now I’ve got to warn you right now that there are spoilers ahead. I don’t think they’ll detract from the overall enjoyment of the film, but they are essential to understanding what can go wrong when a director doesn’t understand the words on pages in front of him…
The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is clearly a ‘life lesson’ film and I had the privilege of attending a screening with the director and star Ben Stiller. So, naturally I was very interested to hear what he felt the film had to teach us. When the question came up he said that it was, “… very much about a man connecting with himself. Walter’s in a box. He’s a guy constrained by the responsibilities of his life.” Then he proceeded to describe how the colours of the film got brighter and the music more energetic the more Walter lived out the words of his magazine’s founder:
“To see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to…”
In short, Stiller’s meaning for Walter Mitty’s life was to transcend the banality others forced on him and become his dream. Admirable … and rather pedestrian when it comes to a Hollywood moral. Also, sadly, it wasn’t the lesson that the scriptwriter actually penned. The acting, the colour, the pace, the music – these are all things that the director manipulates for effect and in this case they definitely bear out Stiller’s vision. Mitty physically and emotionally presents as a far more confident and experienced character by the end of the film. But the plot is the province of the scriptwriter and Steve Conrad decided that the goal of his hero was to search for an image that apparently summed up ‘the quintessence of life.’
So what is the photo? (Last chance to bail out!)
When the mysterious image finally comes to light we discover it’s actually a picture of Walter Mitty sitting outside the Life Magazine building conscientiously doing his normal, everyday job. At least as far as the script is concerned the life lesson isn’t ‘be the dream’ but ‘be content’.
The conflict of visions between the director and the script leads to a muddled finish for what might otherwise have been a very profound journey. The picture actually slides off centre-screen by the end and we’re left focusing on the new and improved Walter Mitty – but I’m actually more impressed with its revelation. It reminds me of another profound statement made by the apostle Paul:
“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.”
We can value the small life over mountaintop triumphs because it’s the life that has been delivered to us by God. In the end it’s not what others think of our achievements, or even what we think of them that matters. God has planned the entire universe so that the His children’s lives are the best they could possibly be – where ‘best’ equals that which will bring us into an ever deepening relationship with Him.
The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty
Release Date: December 26