At first The Secret Life of Walter Mitty looks like a shallow feel good movie but like any good film there are things hidden under the skin that make it more than just a popcorn flick. It doesn’t hurt that this is one of Ben Stiller’s (@RedHourBen) best performances either. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty follows Walter Mitty on his journey to discover the whereabouts of Negative 25 where he winds up discovering himself.
From here on, you will find spoilers ahead so be warned.
The first thing that you’ll notice from the moment the opening shots to the end credits is the cinematography. The shots are all framed to provide the maximum photographic effect. That is, each shot is framed to appear very similar to those amazing pictures you’d see in something like National Geographic or Time Magazine. Unlike a lot of films where the epic shots are simply establishing shots or thrown in gratuitously, they play a larger part here. They serve as a way to visually indicate the larger world beyond Walter’s grasp. To the viewer it serves as a reminder that the world around us is amazing even as we walk past it every day, something Walter seems to have missed.
Watching Stiller play the Every Man yet again actually works really well in this. His layering of emotion comes through as Walter Mitty, something that doesn’t happen as well in his other performances. He particularly gets the anger masked by sadness which drives home the idea that Walter isn’t just some daydreamer but truly feels that he has no control of his own life. Throughout the film you see Stiller hit just the right emotional queues to weave an emotional tale of a guy that is devastated by the loss of his Father and just hasn’t been able to cope with it so he simply goes on.
Kristen Wiig as Cheryl Melhoff is a great casting choice. Wiig has a natural sadness in her eyes that brings life to the story of Cheryl being recently divorced and having to deal with things on her own. She doesn’t play the role as some helpless girl needing a man to save her but as a person that is missing the feeling of being able to love and help another person as a partner.
With additional support from Sean Penn, Shirley MacLaine, Kathryn Hahn, Adrian Martinez and Adam Scott you get a sense of continuity among the characters. Each plays their role with subtlety grounding the movie in reality which allows the daydream sequences some room to be off the wall.
One of the things I enjoy about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the story it tells beyond the neat little wrapper. Some parts of Walter’s life are left open to interpretation such as his previous dating life and his youth beyond skateboarding. We are left as viewers to use our imagination to fill in those blanks with our own experiences. Similarly to a story where the lead character is barely described so as to allow a reader to imagine themselves as the character. This also goes for Cheryl as we aren’t shown or told much about her previous life prior to when we meet her.
There are many interesting parts to the story but I think the most powerful message we get from the story is about self worth. There are the obvious messages thrown at us quite literally throughout the film but the I think my favorite one comes when Walter is talking to Sean O’Connel in the Himalayas. When talking about the snow leopard Sean says, “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” A little further in the conversation talking about Negative 25 when Walter admits he hasn’t seen it, Sean says “Shame, it was a beauty.” It’s only at the end of the film that we find out that the picture is of Walter. Throughout the whole film up until almost the end it seems that Walter has a pretty low opinion of himself even when there are others that clearly hold him in high regard. I think this is part of the movie that holds most true to many people and is a message that people should take from the film.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of those films that is just as much as you want it to be. If you’re a columnist looking for something quick to write about it will fill that role but it will also be something more to someone looking to find their way in life. If you want to be inspired to see another country it can do that too. Think of this film as a song that many people love for so many different reasons and yet an equal number of people say it’s nice but they just don’t get why someone can like it so much. That wide range of value is exactly what makes this a good film.
The Quick and Dirty Verdict
“Watch it at least twice. Once to see it as you normally would, then again and again to see what you missed.”