'The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty' Review: Capturing The Beauty Of A Daydream
Ben Stiller directs and stars in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a beautifully filmed story of overpowering your own shortcomings.
Walter Mitty (Stiller) is a negative assets curator for Life Magazine whose astonishingly mundane life has resulted in his persistent daydreaming. In the real world, he is withdrawn, nervous, socially inept and lacks the ability to stand up for himself. In his daydreams, he is bold, hyperbolically romantic and, most importantly, confident. To many, the sudden acts of heroism and violent tantrums experienced in his daydreams will seem out of place and even uncomfortable, but these scenes have a certain appeal to people similar to Walter Mitty. I admittedly lead a comparable lifestyle – awkward, shy, mundane, and uneventful. Daydreaming is a welcomed break: a way to fall asleep fulfilled, to say what you should have said but couldn’t, to construct a parallel universe where your life is actually interesting. The film depicts these mental flare-ups perfectly. Of course the acting in these bits is over the top and maybe even cringe worthy – but that’s exactly what daydreams are: so private that to disclose them would be absurd and embarrassing. These daydreaming sequences could easily turn off anyone who doesn’t drift off on that scale, but since I do drift off on almost exactly that scale, I was riveted from the start.
As his tenure at Life magazine (and the existence of Life in general) comes to a close, pressure is on to find the perfect cover photo for the final issue. A widely respected photojournalist, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), trusts Walter almost exclusively with his negatives as he sends them in from the remotest and most daring places on the planet. Though they have never met in person, Sean and Walter share a bond and Walter hasn’t lost a single negative in his 16 years at Life. Sean’s latest roll, however, was missing a frame – what a note referred to as “the quintessence of life.” The corporate types taking over the magazine are panicking over finding this last frame to use as the cover. Sean’s methods of communication are unconventional and cryptic, and it’s hard to keep track of him through his travels. This conundrum inspires Walter to embark on a journey unlike one he’s ever taken: to find Sean O’Connell, and hopefully that last frame, in Greenland. Then Iceland… then Afghanistan.
Even if this was an excuse for Ben Stiller to travel to Iceland and write it off as a business expense, it was totally worth it. The landscapes are breath taking – deep green shadows of the clouds set against a vast expanse of mountains in hues of green and grey, minimizing Walter’s figure as he winds down a remote road on a skateboard he got from a local kid in a trade. Golden sunlight on a landscape where it always looks like it just rained. The cinematography in this film is wonderful – the rigid New York symmetry in the beginning of the film gives way to immense, fluid landscapes to reflect Walter’s state of mind as the world unfolds before him. As he juggles the quest to find the missing frame with an attempt to keep his job and his department at Life, he makes frequent and jarring transitions from remote and improbable places back to New York. The stark contrasts highlight the pros and cons of each location and lifestyle, but each is given its own beauty, albeit of different varieties.
This strange and winding adventure has an amazing soundtrack featuring Swedish musician José González in addition to tracks by his band, Junip. The songs have an ethereal feel that serves as a perfect backdrop to the world blooming at Walter’s feet. The unconventional harmonies evoke a sentiment of wonder and curiosity that are especially suitable to the landscapes.
Overall, the movie definitely has a Garden State vibe to it. The parallels are startling (and to some, I imagine, quite tiresome): eye-catching cinematography, the voyage to self-discovery centered on a man who has mentally checked out of his own life, gaining confidence from a woman, and the very necessary hipster soundtrack. However, it all comes together surprisingly well.
The quasi-romance subplot, featuring Kristen Wiig, could have been subtracted from the movie without any substantial damage done. It was a bit superfluous and hasty, as if someone decided to throw it in at the last minute to increase appeal, but it really didn’t add much to the movie overall, nor did it move forward.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty doesn’t make a hard and powerful impact. Rather, the combination of scenery, cinematography and melodic soundtrack stays foggily in your head, wallowing in your consciousness… like a daydream.