‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ Review: Inspiration via Illusion

Zig Marasigan

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For a film that seemingly bludgeons you with its need to inspire and enthuse, there is a surprising sense of emotion behind all the film’s spectacle and special effects

DAILY GRIND. 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' blends fantasy and reality. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

MANILA, Philippines – In many ways, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is much a like a clever yet fragile magic trick. For those who don’t buy into it, the trick, and therefore the magic, is lost. But for those that do, it turns into an illusion that is as thoughtful and tangible as reality itself. 

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a negative assets manager working for the now-defunct Life magazine. Soft-spoken and introverted, Mitty has spent the last decade and a half processing film negatives for the iconic publication. The irony here is that the photos under Mitty’s care have lived a far more interesting life than he ever has. When not in his darkroom, Mitty spends his time daydreaming of a life he knows he cannot lead – dreams which a whirlwind romance with co-worker and secret love interest Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). 

When the magazine is finally forced to close down, Mitty is tasked to develop the cover photo for the final issue. And when he discovers that the coveted negative has gone missing, Mitty is forced to travel around the world to find photojournalist Sean O’ Connell (Sean Penn) in an effort to find a copy of the photo. 

Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a surprising effort from a man whose most popular works include Zoolander and Reality Bites. But for a film that seemingly bludgeons you with its need to inspire and enthuse, there is a surprising sense of emotion behind all the film’s spectacle and special effects.   

Living the Dream

Daydreaming protagonists are a permanent fixture in cinema, but the notion is central to the James Thurber short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – the very same piece of literature that inspired Stiller’s current adaptation. 

Although the spirit of Thurber’s main character can be identified in Mitty, the comparisons end there. As in Thurber’s short story, Stiller’s film deals with an everyman whose self-made illusions are far more exciting than his world-imposed reality. But screenwriter Steve Conrad takes things a step further by blending reality with indiscernible fantasy. At first, we accept Mitty’s fantasies as downright impossible, but as the story begins to take off, we begin to notice that Mitty’s secret life isn’t the one in his head but the one he hides from the world, his family, his friends and himself.  

Mitty’s fantasies admittedly get tiring quickly, but when the story trades fantasy for reality, the film begins to really take off. Soon, we find Mitty jumping into a helicopter in Greenland, running past clouds of ash in Iceland and scaling the Himalayan mountains. But this isn’t in Mitty’s head; this is real. In fact, the real takeaway from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn’t that we should jump into life with reckless abandon. It’s that if we do, life can be just as fantastic as our wildest dreams. 

The Magic of Movies

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty attempts to inspire its audience. Though it succeeds in a Hallmark-esque way, it is derailed by its need to provide a sugarcoated ending that is as saccharine as cinema’s worst melodramas. In spite of its finale, it’s hard to discount the definite highs over the film’s unmistakable lows. 

For realists, cynics and pessimists, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty will come off as an ambitious yet insubstantial attempt at providing a statement about life. But for the dreamers and optimists who are willing to jump after that dream, it is a reminder to live. 

There will be those who will dismiss the fantasies of Walter Mitty, and there will be those will embrace it. For the latter, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is magic. – Rappler.com

Zig Marasigan is a freelance screenwriter and director who believes that cinema is the cure for cancer. Follow him on Twitter at @zigmarasigan.


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