20th Century Fox

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” Is Required Viewing

There’s nothing better than ringing in the New Year with some popcorn, and to figure what’s next in the grand adventure of life. Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a good place to start.

“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of Life.”

Says the so-proclaimed motto of Life magazine, at least according to this rendition of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Though it’s not an exact wording of what Life founder Henry Luce actually published in the magazine’s real-life first issue, the film remains true to the maxim’s spirit.

The movie is very, very loosely based on a James Thurber short story that appeared in The New Yorker in 1939; since then, Thurber’s tale of a man who seeks freedom from the mundane has seen several incarnations, including two cinematic versions that have graced the big screen. In Thurber’s original premise, Mitty is forced to find refuge from what is an otherwise joyless and uninspiring life.

In this particular story, Walter Mitty is a man who has worked for Life magazine for the past 16 years. His job is to curate the iconic images that come through the magazine’s photo department for each edition of the cover. As the magazine prepares to shutters its print edition to stave off what I can only assume is financial insolvency, Walter is unable to find the final issue’s cover photo.

Mitty is a peculiar guy; he is a man who lives large, at least in his head. But as he embarks on a quest to find the missing photo, the line between fantasy and reality begins to merge. It’s one of those rare films that manages to not take it too seriously but understands, at the same time, just how ridiculous real life and movie-making can be.

That’s not to say the film is perfect in its delivery: while some montages are hilarious in their own right, others can be distracting. On occasion, I found myself, very much like its titular character, zoning out. But while it’s not a perfect movie by any means, the film delivers a remarkably sweet story about what matters to one man.

For a movie that’s about going into the unknown, the stunning cinematography that spans from the isolation of Iceland to urban Harlem in upper Manhattan doesn’t disappoint. Greenland even makes a grand entrance, not as itself, but as part of a grand Himalayan adventure. Swedish musician José González, best known for Veneer, contributes greatly here to setting the tone for the film’s sense of cautious optimism.

Ben Stiller, left, with Sean Penn, as Sean O' Connell. (20th Century Fox)

Ben Stiller, left, with Sean Penn, as Sean O’ Connell. (20th Century Fox)

Though all of the actors more or less deliver solid performances, Sean Penn is basically perfect as Sean O’Connell, the war photographer Walter goes in search of. Despite only appearing in five minutes of the entire film, his scene with Stiller is worth staying for and gives resonance to the entire film. In the end, the film is very clear that life goes on, no matter what we’re doing.

There’s a lot of commentary on the media industry here, too. Though the bar isn’t very high to begin with, it’s a portrayal that finally comes close of an dying industry. For three years, I worked at TIME, Life’s sister publication. In the too real world, my magazine saw entire departments—such as its photo department, not so ironically—folded into oblivion across all of its headquarters worldwide. Whole floors of staff were reduced to less than a handful, ghost crew of people.

Though I never worked in the Time-Life building personally—I worked in a satellite office of TIME—I did visit the iconic New York building for the occasional meeting. I can still remember the day I first set foot inside: there I was, not even just as a visitor, but as an employee, in the offices of one of the most celebrated magazines in the world. After fielding dozens of magazine covers from afar on my desk, it was complete.

I unfortunately never had the pleasure of meeting Richard Corliss, who is TIME’s resident movie critic. The film, he points out, isn’t just for melancholy movie critics, photo editors, or former writers who also now happen to run a travel blog. It’s for anyone who’s ever been bound by a purpose beyond themselves, who’s done something for the sake of doing it.

Mitty ultimately takes a leap of faith into the unknown, not because he’s repressed, but because he has to. Traveling is something I’ve always encouraged in others: for the reasons that it makes you uncomfortable, makes you find your limits and makes you endure things you never thought you could. Necessity is truly the mother of invention, and there is nothing like reinventing yourself all over again.

I am reminded, bittersweetly, of an old Gawker article—another company that I also used to work for—years ago about some shop talk, but could easily apply here, and to this movie.

Strewn all about the floor around us are copies of The New York Times, New York Post, Wall Street Journal, and New York Daily News, not to mention the latest copies of Esquire, Rolling Stone, and The New Yorker, as well as a couple of recently purchased books. We love all of these things, we love the way they feel to the touch and the way we feel inside when we touch them, and each day we try to wrap our brains around life without them, but we just can’t seem to do it…

In short, we’re torn over all of this… We also realize that things die and that these things dying is hard to accept and is often the cause of tremendous grief, even though the death of these things usually means that some other things will be granted lives.

There’s something very poignant about Mitty working where he does. It’s clear he’s put a lot of dedication and quiet passion into his job. The movie isn’t about travel, or love, though it does touch all of those topics at some point; it’s really about Mitty rediscovering passion in life, or Life, or whatever that may be.

["The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" by James Thurber]

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