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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Skate or Die is Walter's new motto, not this Choose Life bullshit!

dir: Ben Stiller


Us lowly shmos. Workaday slobs and Joe Twelve-Packs, people whose dreams died so long ago that the only way we can keep living is through endless material consumption and the magic of cinema, temporarily at least energising us and convincing us that our existence is not entirely futile. One day we could break out of our routines and obligations, and live the lives we once fantasised about.

One day, but not today. Got too much on. Too old to change. Too many people relying on us for us to change and live the way we really want to live.

Who better to remind us great unwashed masses that we should really be living life to the fullest, travelling to far flung places and carpei deim-ing all over the place than a multi-millionaire comedian from Hollywood? Who knows more about pursuing and achieving your dreams than a very successful actor?

The original short story was written by a hellishly talented writer called James Thurber, and its purpose wasn't about gently goosing people into stretching their own definition of their lives, or being all they can be, to finally do the things they've always been too timid to do. It was about a meek, hen-pecked man whose mundane, put-upon existence felt a little less onerous when he imagined himself as a daring and heroic alpha male. The humour, and Thurber was one of the funniest writers ever to write, was in the magnitude of the distance between the detail of his everyday life and the extremity of his elaborate fantasies. There's no transition, there's no inspiration, there's no moment of decision which changes his life evermore, everafter for that Walter Mitty.

There wouldn't be much film in that. In fact, that story would be kinda depressing. But, for us, the purpose of movies is to make us feel good about ourselves. If Walter Mitty can transcend his mundanity and break out, then so could the rest of us(?)

This is a surprisingly enjoyable flick. It has been ridiculously and elaborately well shot, even in the scenes in New York, let alone in Iceland, and looks like a vivid dream that any of us could want to have. There are moments of high cheesiness, and a few sketch-like moments that seem out of kilter with the rest of the flick (I'm thinking of the Benjamin Button scenes which, though somewhat amusing, didn't really belong). But overall I feel it delivered what Ben Stiller wanted, in a broad, crowd-pleasing way.

He not only stars but directs, which is both good and worrying. He is, despite his hacky instincts, pretty good at delivering comedy (I still think Tropic Thunder is a gem of a comedy), but the soul of this flick is more serious, though intended to be no less uplifting. So, yes, maybe he himself did dream that awards would shower down from the heavens with a somewhat more dramatic role (some dreams don't come true), or that he would be considered a 'serious' director with a more mature flick, but, eh, he should be happy he gets to make the movies he wants. To most people that would be a dream. To plenty of other directors that would be a dream.

So maybe he can relate to us lumpenproletariat oiks. Walter Mitty (Stiller) is a quiet nebbishy-type who is sober, timid, boring and dull. Whatever life he intended to live, he never got around to it because of the death of his father when he was 17.

Having to take on the mantle of responsibility and adulthood early, he has basically squandered whatever life energies and dreams he possessed in the pursuit of a paycheck in order to support his mother and sister.

A lifetime of wageslave dronery has seen him end up in the bowels of the Time - Life building, as a negative asset manager. I know, sounds thrilling, doesn't it.

Sixteen years later, he is so horrifically bored by himself that he's become some kind of narcoleptic, who mentally wanders off into trances, dazzled by his own imagination, entranced by the idea of himself as a completely different person from who he actually is.

They call these episodes daydreams, but there's probably a far more harsh and worrying psychiatric term that would better describe his brain attacks.

Many of these, naturally, are representations of what he wishes he could do in a specific circumstance differently, as in, someone insults him or he sees someone he likes and can't speak to, and he imagines what a different kind of Walter Mitty would do in those situations. We all do this, don't we? Unless you're the kind of person who does exactly what they want exactly when they want to, and you aren't in a jail cell, in which case none of this will be even remotely relatable for you.

For many of the rest of us, we have a long, long list of stuff we might wish we did differently, either dating from a few minutes ago, to decades ago. The weight of that self-defeating bullshit can be crushing, utterly crushing, until you can no longer imagine yourself making any decisions about your own life at all. Walter's daydreams, instead of being a comfort, or even a nuisance, are now actively an impediment to living.

Walter reaches a point where he says "Enough." Either the elements that he 'wants', like the new co-worker that he's attracted to but is too timid to speak to (Kristen Wiig) have become powerful enough to knock him out of his torpor, or he has reached a stage or an age where he has to either change or die. Plus, things are shaky at Time Life. The magazine, which folded in our reality many years ago, is winding down in this film's reality. The main reason he works at Life magazine is so the film can pound the really basic metaphor of what Walter should be doing with his life, either at Life or in his personal life, into our eyes and ears. Either Walter will embrace Life, or he should just die, already. At the very least he should be living it according to Life's motto of going to cool places and doing dangerous stuff.

A photographer (Sean Penn), who everyone thinks of as a real man, and Walter would probably give his left nut to be like, sends to the office a reel of film, from which a frame is missing. This single frame becomes the Holy Grail of Walter's existence, as he literally has to transform himself and cut away at decades of sclerotic thinking in order to be able to get close to "it" and to approach the "quintessence of Life", as it keeps being referred to.

And thus does Walter go a bit crazy. Greenland, Iceland, the Himalayas, fighting sharks, punching drunken bears, asking the 'girl' of his dreams out, basically doing whatever he wants or needs to without that voice in his head stopping him cold.

That's meant to be universally appealing, and I would argue that it is. I may not be able to relate to the idea that people are somehow more interesting just because they've been to Iceland, because I know two people that have been there, and they're as boring as a can of beige paint telling you in great detail about that dream they had the other night about socks, but the idea of it is appealing. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is not saying anything that different than any other film, regardless of its subject matter, but it does it in an enjoyable way.

Walter, after all his travels and all his adventures could revert back to being the clod he was at the beginning ('clod' meaning devolving back into someone like the members of the audience, because if we were truly like Walter Mitty version 2.0, we wouldn't be squandering our time at a cinema or in front of the television, we'd be out there banging supermodels as we parachute into volcanoes or punching snow leopards in their endangered scrota).

We'd be embracing Life in all the majestic and terrifying or mundane ways that we could ever want.

Walter's journey, as much of a cliché as it might be, is one I enjoyed. Stiller believably (and that's the most unbelievable thing for me) inhabits this character, and earns that ending, the ending that explains to us what the "quintessence of Life" really is. The first time I saw the ending, I didn't really like it, and I added it to a laundry list of complaints, not least of which is the routine product placement and branding for e-Harmony and some franchise fast food place that gets an idiotic number of mentions. I don't know what deals Stiller had to make for money from these businesses in order to perhaps fund His Dream, but it must have been at least a little bit humiliating.

The second time I watched it, which was quite recently, many of my complaints faded away, and it probably helped that I was stone cold sober this time. What I saw as a facile and mawkish story about personal empowerment and taking control of one's life (whatever that means), I saw differently by the end, because I saw that it wasn't just about big emblematic moments; it was about a lot of the smaller decisions along the way.

It was only with the second viewing that I retained the real "first" important decision was right at the start, simple as it was, when he tries to "wink" at his co-worker through some godawful dating app. His indecision, his fears and twenty years of conditioning make him dither endlessly over something completely innocuous. But that's when he really started on the path to breaking free of himself, not the drunken helicopter ride, or skating from one Icelandic town to another (which did look great).

Kristen Wiig does well enough as an able support, though most of her noticeable stuff is in fantasy sequences. Adam Scott is smug and awful as a bearded executive whose only job is to torment Walter in petty ways. There's a real hatred of bearded guys in this flick, which I certainly applaud.

Walter/Ben doesn't have a beard. It's Stiller's film, and he does well with it.

As broad as it might be, as uncomplicated as what it's saying might be, it's still nice to hear it every now and then: Don't forget to live every once in a while; If you have the option, and you're not fleeing from a Sunni army or wondering how you're going to eat in the next few days, don't just survive and get by. Live a little. Go on, I dare you.

8 times Greenland looks like a fun place to drink out of 10

"To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life." - well, my motto for life is more like "that'll do, Pig, that'll do" but, whatever - The Secret Life of Walter Mitty