Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Image This one won't leave me.

This is the story of a man (Walter Mitty by Ben Stiller) who has been traumatized into a way of living that is half dream and half reality. Sounds a bit like Science of Sleep (an all-time fave of mine). The reason I love and find this theme underrated is that it recognizes the complex inter-wiring of our mental and emotional worlds. The idea admits that daydreaming is kind of an adaptive mechanism for someone who feels displaced and too sensitive to push through and lay a new path through the landscape of human experience.

Anyone on drugs would acknowledge escape as their MO as well. It's all addiction. Even if you aren't plugging a syringe into your vein on a daily basis or downing shots in a secret bar stop on the way home, you still need to ask yourself: what are you addicted to? Is it legal or illegal--is there any question that it could be just as devastating either way? Daydreaming to the extent that Mitty does is arguably destructive--in his case to the degree that his dad's death must have destroyed his sense of trust in the world.

Stiller's posture and looming, faraway gaze convinced me that I HAD to love his character, because I somehow related to his situation--how he was trapped in a hyper-secure life inspired by great insecurity, to the point of living mainly through intense daydream sequences that cause everyone in his vicinity to find him a bit strange. Likewise, the other well-cast characters inspired appropriate levels of allegiance and disgust to immerse my mind in the plots and points.

The color, cinematography and wide camera shots create a super-real effect throughout the film, which is nice, because I hate it when a film is indecisive about what it is. This one is more a challenge to reality than a look at it, almost in the same way that Life of Pi is. And yet it's more variegated (to the relief of those who grew tired of the boy, boat and tiger).

The plot revolves around Mitty's intermittent dips into fantasy, and a series of events that yank him out of this habit and throw him into living a more action-filled life. Some of the key sub-plots involve his discussions with an eHarmony representative, his obsession with a woman at work (Cheryl Melhoff by Kristen Wiig), his interactions with his boss at Life Magazine, and his reconciliation of the magazine going digital rendering his job as the manager of photo negatives obsolete. But the main plot vein runs up from the deep and surfaces more than halfway through the film. It involves his relationship with the elusive and legendary photographer Sean O'Connell (by Sean Penn).

This relationship is introduced when O'Connell sends through what he terms his greatest photo of all time, as a negative packed amidst a gift and a letter, an unusual display of expression and appreciation toward Mitty. Problem is, the one photo he claims is the best among a string of negatives, number 25, is missing. As the announcement of Life's last print run is made, the pressure is on for Mitty to produce this photo for the cover. But O'Connell is highly elusive and constantly on the move, refusing to be tied down to any mode of formal communication.

Amidst taunting about his daydreaming disposition, Mitty faces additional pressure to do his job right for the magazine's grand finale. If there is one thing he's done all of his 16 years at the company, it's keep track of negatives. Wrongfully accused on yet another level, he sinks into himself but somehow through discussions with this eHarmony representative it dawns on him that he hasn't done anything in so long that he should live a little. So he sets out to find O'Connell. Through his adventures we are taken to Greenland for the first time in blockbuster history, and thanks to the cinematography, it's an unforgettable experience.

The chase continues to Iceland and Afghanistan as Mitty goes from a man who's greatest thrill of any given week is taking the subway to his mother's house for cake, to a Himalaya-climbing, professional skateboarding survivor of shark attack and massive volcanic explosion. Indeed, Mitty was due for a life change, a celestial transit of sorts. When he meets O'Connell, he's so worn down to his own essence that we might be a bit surprised by his candor in approaching such a legendary figure.

The scene of their meeting is the absolute climax of the film, alluding to the deepest layer of its meaning: a moment lived and memorized, more than merely photographed, daydreamed, or documented, is by far the most worthwhile, if we only have the guts to be in it, the patience to recognize it and the will to allow it to take us over.

From there we have a succession of such moments, which become all our own, which become a rich life. From there, we build this confidence that, from our very breath outward, we use to direct a life that we alone are charged with deeming worthwhile.

In the end, a person must master fantasy, hearsay, authority, propaganda, programming, media framing and peer pressure enough to live a life in the realm of what anyone could term authentic. And yet it's a worthy goal for sure. I for one, as much as I might delight in any level of recognition for accomplishments, crave such an unadulterated consciousness when going about the business of life. I write about this movie because it provided a nice related compass point.