“The beautiful things never ask for attention,” photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) remarks on a mountaintop to photo-processor Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller). In much the same way, the viewer learns to appreciate the mousy Mitty and his work, his life, and his wants and needs. In an enchanting film like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Directed by Stiller), it’s plain to see: there is beauty in the mundane, and life is about much more than work.
Daydreamer Walter Mitty has worked in a dark corner of the Life magazine headquarters processing photos day in and day out for sixteen years. After he discovers the magazine is to be discontinued and turned into some “dotcom” and many workers will be laid off in the process, Mitty is given the last roll of negatives from legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Penn) and told by O’Connell in a note to select a certain print for the cover, because he thinks it’s his best ever. The only catch is that Walter can’t find the negative. What follows is a quest upon which Mitty embarks, finding not only the negative, but himself in the process.
Under the experienced direction of Ben Stiller, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is based on a short story written by James Thurber in 1939, and is considered one of the best pieces of mid-twentieth-century American fiction, showcasing the power that imagination can hold over humans. Though Stiller’s film is the second film adaptation, it shares little in common with the previous version, starring Danny Kaye in 1947. Stiller’s Mitty evokes a modernized version of Thurber’s character, a man who often drifts into daydreams in the middle of a conversation. The only difference is the context in which the daydreaming is placed, and what Walter does.
Much of Walter’s life is spent falling in and out of daydreams, like some sort of white collar version of JD from NBC’s “Scrubs.” In these daydreams, Walter imagines sweeping his charming co-worker off her feet, experiencing extreme environments, and lives his life vicariously through the photographs lining the walls of the Time office. What Walter finds is a message that we must all take to heart–that there’s truly nothing better than a good old dose of “carpe diem”–seizing the opportunities that present themselves each day and living life to its fullest extent.
It’s a different kind of movie for Stiller to take on, to be sure. It evokes images of Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love, wherein actors known for their comedic exploits take on serious roles, and do them quite well. It’s clear that Stiller has the capability to take on a more humor-less role, and excel. The film is largely focused on his character, and Stiller expertly takes on the load. Not to say the film is without humor, but The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’s tone is that of a more serious film, much like the other examples mentioned.
Excellent as ever, Sean Penn plays the sage photographer Sean O’Connell, doling out life wisdom on a mountaintop like some sort of present-day Yoda. Kristen Wiig plays Cheryl Melhoff, a new worker at Life magazine, and the object of Mitty’s affection. Wiig is charming as ever, and despite the more serious film, still allows her quirky and tongue-in-cheek humor to emerge during the film.
Filled with wonderful, evocative environments, an excellent soundtrack, and a heartwarming message, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a thought-provoking work of art, the likes of which I honestly wasn’t expecting. Gathering from the previews, I went in not knowing what to expect, and came out a better person for the experience. Ben Stiller reminds us all that often what we seek for so long and in the most roundabout ways is often right where we never thought to look, and in doing so, climbs his way into one of the slots I reserve for “favorite films of 2013.”