Daydreaming! Isn’t it awesome? I’m an avid daydreamer myself, and always have been, ever since, as the kids say, I was a “wee little sprog.” There are countless pros to daydreaming. If your life is dull, you zone out and go on an adventure or something like that. It helps spice up life a bit, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Of course, there are, to counter the countless pros, a few scattered cons… Anyway, this week I’m reviewing a film that examines the countless pros and few scattered cons of daydreaming. That was the point of the intro, I guess. You’d…probably get that information from the plot synopsis that I inevitably do…oh well. Surely by now you’ve come to expect two things from Second Breakfast: a superfluous introduction and a blatant, unprofessional plot summary.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
The Plot: Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a disaffected photo processor for Life Magazine. He survives by constantly daydreaming about going to the amazing places and doing the amazing things that are depicted in the photos that pass through his office for publication. One day the company makes a formal announcement that they are cancelling hardcopy publication and switching to the online format. People are getting laid off by a bearded Adam Scott, and Walter is rapidly approaching a crisis when he receives a shipment from famed photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), including a gift to Walter for all his good work over the years in handling O’Connell’s work, and a photo that O’Connell considers possibly his best ever, and that he believes would make a good cover for the final issue. That photo is missing. Since O’Connell is constantly moving around with no phone or permanent address, Walter decides to set out into the world to hunt him down and get the photo, using only the other photos in the reel as clues.
If you saw any of the trailers or ads for this movie at all, you are well aware that it is a Christmas-release feel-good movie. It is. This movie is so feel-goody that it was in fact released on Christmas… along with The Wolf of Wall Street and 47 Ronin. Let’s just sort this out. This movie is about a lonely office drone who’s never done a thing in his life leaving everything behind so that he can travel the world, have crazy experiences, and learn to believe in himself. Right? Well, shockingly, there’s a lot more to it than that. Walter Mitty is a fully realized, well developed character. The reason he hasn’t traveled is not because he’s just lazy or a Man in a Grey Flannel Suit. In truth, he’s always wanted to travel, and had plans to at one point, which were upset when his father died and he had to start working in order to support his mother and sister. That part of Walter is nicely done. He’s put off his dreams his entire adult life so that he could work tirelessly in a boring job, which he’s finally about to lose unless he stops putting off his dreams. More importantly, despite everything, Walter is not a jerk. He harbors no resentment to his family, and loves them very much. Nor is he over-the-top quirky. His daydreams are reasonable, funny, and offer a nice glimpse into his psyche.
Having a strong main character is one thing, but the really impressive thing about this film is that, despite being directed by, produced by, and starring one man, and being an uplifting story about following your dreams, it is not self-indulgent. Ben Stiller plays the part with utmost sincerity and love, devoid of pretense, irony, or self-praise. Oh, and sometimes I forget that he can actually direct. He has maybe a few too many overhead shots, but other than that, I have no complaints. For most of the movie, he’s filming himself doing amazing things in breathtaking locations, but he directs the same way he acts. Walter treks through Greenland, Iceland, and the Himalayas. In a nutshell: he travels exclusively to beautiful places. When he’s there, though, Stiller is careful not to allow himself to overwhelm the frame. Since much of the preface of the film concerns the beauty of nature and the art of photographing it, Stiller spends a lot of time setting up the prettiest damn shots of these locales. The viewer, then, doesn’t have to just see Walter doing things and witness how they affect him in order to understand, because we undergo the same journey from the comfort of the theater. We understand what the scenery means to him because it means the same thing to us.
As for the message of the film, that’s also not pretentious. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is about one man, Walter Mitty, who was unable to follow his dreams due to circumstance, finally getting to follow his dreams. There’s no great speech about getting out there and seeing the world, no one blatantly states the theme, the ending isn’t too overtly happy; not even Sean Penn’s character gets preachy. The movie doesn’t tell you what to think or do, but it makes you feel that way. I saw it with three other people. Everyone in the group, myself included, at some point on the way home from the movie theater said, “Man, watching that movie really made me want to travel around Europe.”
I gather this film has been receiving a lot of criticism for being something of a loose adaptation. Well, I haven’t read the original work, so I can’t comment on that. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is not a perfect film by any stretch, but it is an unabashedly sweet film. It is a feel good movie with the absolute sincerest goal of making the audience feel good, and maybe encouraging them to feel better. I fail to see anything wrong with that. It avoids preaching, the music doesn’t swell dramatically at any point, and the characters are likable. Even Adam Scott sort of grows a wee bit by the end of the movie. I guess, to put it simply, I just really liked this movie and I wasn’t expecting to. It made me feel good.