The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Posted on: 17th January 2014  |

Director: Ben Stiller

Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn

Certificate: PG (114 mins)

UK release date: 26 December 2013


This is the story of a negative assets manager.  He works under a lamp in a dim storage locker where the walls are lined with photographs of exotic places taken by other people.  His most remarkable characteristics are a vivid imagination and a tendency to zone out.  This is his story; and a story about the meaning of life.

In fact, the storage locker in question belongs to Life magazine and is situated more than thirty floors up a New York skyscraper. It houses millions of photographic negatives shipped in from all over the world, a good chunk of which have passed through the well-groomed fingers of Walter Mitty (played by Ben Stiller).  He has never had a mishap – until the case of negative number 25.  This is the blood-splattered, career-defining celluloid square that a legendary photo journalist (Sean Penn) has designated as ‘the quintessence of life’.  And Mitty can’t find it.

This would have been bad enough, but Life was acquired over the weekend and just about everybody is going to get fired in the run-up to the dotcom takeover.  To make matters worse, the despicably bearded, achingly hip twenty-something who is in charge of ‘managing the transition’ has decreed that negative number 25 is destined for the final issue’s photo cover.

Adventure calls.  But will Walter answer that call when it means abandoning oversight of the movers who are handling his aging mother’s piano?  Will he risk missing his slacker sister’s amateur performance as Grease’s Rizzo ‘in some weird church’?  Will he leave behind a fledgling office romance with Cheryl from accounting (Kristen Wiig)?  Yes he will!  He grips his silver aluminum briefcase in one fist and his tidily-figured chequebook in the other, and dashes away to the elusive photo journalist’s last known port of departure:  a pub-cum-helipad in, of all places, Greenland.

I don’t want to spoil the action.  But if you are looking for bar fights, jaw-snapping sea creatures, randy Chilean sailors, mountain biking, cliff-scaling, epic longboarding and a biplane headed straight into a cloud of billowing volcanic ash, then you will find all of that in this film.

One critic called this film ‘Eat, Pray, Love for men’, and there is something to that.  Its Ben Stiller-directed existential message would not be clearer if it culminated in a chat with an orange-robed Buddhist monk on a peak in the Himalayas.  Be present.  Cherish the moment.  Or, in the words attributed to the film’s magazine as its motto:  ‘To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of life.’

And feel we do.  The film’s trendy, upbeat soundtrack sets the tone for montages of desolate, high latitude grandeur:  icebergy bays, rocky wilderness plains and glittering, snow-capped peaks.  A palette of whites, washed greys and blues captures its spiritual aspirations, while the earthy shots of mohawks, tattered hoodies and Papa John’s pizza keep us grounded in a world we recognise.  A big part of Walter Mitty is wanderlust, and it tantalised this viewer at least with glimpses of some places he had never seen.

Yet when the rush of the odyssey has concluded, and the delightful art-house photowork still glistens in the mind, there also lingers a sense of a more subtle beauty.  It is not, I think, the remembered glamour of journeying through a pristine world.  It is not the fond whimsy of taking troubleshooting calls in the middle of the wilderness from Todd at eHarmony.  It is not the half-sad smiles of a charming and understated midlife romance.  It is a sense, rather, of the beauty of a hidden life, a life worked out in solitude – unnoticed, unpublicised, yet beautiful.

If there is a meaning for every life in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – even for those critics who will inevitably declaim against its pretension, ponderousness and failed ambition, perhaps only in remote corners of cyberspace – it is this: even such efforts as these, when performed in good faith, are beautiful.  It is the unseen efforts, the common fidelities, the loving devotions amidst the ordinary, that lend substance to an existence; even an existence that may, or may not ever, even for one fine moment, pop and sparkle in the eye of public acclaim.


Reviewer: David Baird


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