The more I think about it, the more I have a problem with the Ben Stiller remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Forget that it misses the point of Thurber’s original short story and isn’t as whimsical as the 1947 Danny Kaye/Virginia Mayo version, that’s not really what matters here. Instead, what matters is the overall message, and for me, that message sucks.
To back up a second…the plot centers around Walter Mitty, a middle aged, milquetoast of a man who escapes into an incredibly rich fantasy life, often causing him to lose contact for a brief period with whatever reality had inspired the fantastic hallucination to begin with. In various incarnations, what Mitty does and how he does it changes, but the basic premise remains the same.
So with that in mind, let’s talk about what Ben Stiller has done with the latest incarnation. As a film, it’s pretty to look at. Part of me thinks the script was written as an excuse to visit exotic locales for shooting – which is fine as long as it makes sense logically. Here, the reasoning is that Mitty, a negative asset manager (ho handles the photographic negatives of Life Magazine) has misplaced one frame of a roll of film from a famous photographer (Sean O’Connell, played by Sean Penn) which is deemed to be the shot which should be the cover of what is going to be the last print issue of the magazine itself. Forget about the fact the photographer sends in a roll of negatives from a number of locations with no multiple variations of the same shot (that’s right, Sean O’Connell is THAT good). Additionally, the frame (#25) is set to be the cover of one of the most historic issues of the magazine in its storied history sight unseen. Okay, this is a fantasy. I’ll give you the benefit here.
Now Mitty, as we’ve seen, is attracted to a new hire, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), working in a different department and we’ve also seen him drift off into fantasy (the pre-crdit sequence has him leaping into an about to explode building to rescue Melhoff’s three legged dog). What we don’t see, as the film progresses, is a reason for this delusional state (we’ll come back to this). Stiller’s Mitty may not be aggressive or self-confident, but there’s never any reason for him to retreat from reality the way he does. Sure, he indulges in a little bit of over-active imagination, righting wrongs and slights which are so obnoxiously over the top it’s a wonder anyone can tolerate them. But that’s normal. We’ve actually seen that in a number films. Usually it has a bigger narrative purpose, but again, this is a fantasy so we’ll let it slide.
Then, as we learn a bit more about Mitty, we meet his slacker sister (Kathryn Hahn) and about to be put-into-a-home mother (Shirley MacLaine). Again, nothing over-bearing enough to cause his psychotic breaks. He just feels he’s never done anything or been anywhere worthwhile. This is evidenced by seeing the still-new backpack he had purchased and the never-used travel diary his father had given the young Mitty upon his high school graduation. Even so, we find out Walter wasn’t always like this – nope, as a youngster he was a competitive skateboarder and sported a father endorsed mohawk.
Of course, now is the time to make amends and return to that adventurous spirit. With the magazine closing and Mitty’s reputation of never having lost a negative in over 16 years of service on the line, he decides to try to unravel the mystery of the missing #25, track down the elusive photographer, and save the day, winning the girl the in the process. And he does. He heads off to Greenland , then Iceland, then Afghanistan (after returning home once in-between) and he stops hallucinating, presumably because he’s now living the adventures instead of imagining them.
And does he get the girl. Of course. In fact, that’s one of the main problems with the film’s script – there are no surprises. Seriously. None. The big mystery of where negative #25 is… not a mystery. What’s the image on negative #25? If you didn’t figure it out, you probably also get confused by Encyclopedia Brown. Even the long trek through the Himalayas to find O’Connell is destroyed when they just pop down for a friendly game of footie after Penn delivers a well worded and perfectly timed bon mot about the nature of life (and Life – let’s not forget that’s the cause of all this, the closing down of the magazine). At times Stiller’s Mitty is treated like an idiot (which he is not) or a fool (again, he’s not) by the writer, Steve Conrad, and by the director, Stiller himself.
All of this I can forgive, though. Really. In fact, my initial debate was can this still be a good film even though there were no surprises? Are we so conditioned against cliché that we forgo a positive message if it’s too mired in the predictable? And I was ready to give in and say, yes, this is a fantasy romantic comedy and let it go… but then it hit me what was really going on and it comes down to the scene were we finally see what happened.
As Mitty tells us, his father died on tuesday and on thursday, the young, mohawked Walter cut his hair and got a job at Papa John’s pizza in order to help out and support the family and that was it for his dreams and aspirations. Even in It’s a Wonderful Life we get a bit of understanding as to why George Bailey can’t go to Europe or University. Here, it’s an after school job and a mother who according to everything would have encouraged him to go. Even the piano, which is a fairly major plot point in that it was given by dad to their mom and causes all sorts of story issues to keep it, is only there so Mitty can have a turning point and decide to sell it. And when he does we discover his mother really couldn’t care less. It was all about Mitty and his own insecurities. At the end of the day, the film is saying that by accepting adult responsibilities you must put aside any sense of adventure or living your dream. We’re supposed to pity poor Mitty because he had to get a job. And only by losing his job and standing up to his boss does he let go of his self-induced psychosis and the film allows him to end by, you guessed it, getting the girl.
Thing is, ether are some good moments, there are some fun moments, but in the end, I just can’t endorse a film which equates day to day responsibility with the abolition of dreams.