My wife and daughter and I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty this past weekend, the latest directorial effort from comedian Ben Stiller. This is hardly Stiller’s first work behind the camera; his directorial debut was way back in 1989 with the little-known short Elvis Stories, followed up in 1994 with the breakout feature hit Reality Bites, described by some as a love letter to Generation X, Stiller’s own demographic. (For what it’s worth, I’m a card-carrying member of GenX and I hated Reality Bites. But that’s a rant for a future entry.)
Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was inspired by the famous short story by James Thurber, about a self-absorbed daydreamer who has nothing to show for his life. From this simple concept, Stiller has moved in the opposite direction of Thurber’s rather nihlistic tale, spinning a story that is both a fantasy and an unabashed work of cinematic whimsy. Realism this is not. Nor is it trying to be, so when Walter Mitty skateboards across Iceland in a few hours or jumps from a helicopter into the near-freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean with no ill-effects (after fending off a shark attack with his brief case) we are missing the point if we talk about how fanciful it all is. It is supposed to be fanciful; the film is an exercise in what I have come to think of as the “philosophical inspiration” genre. It attempts to give us hope and joy and a renewed love for life while attempting to avoid overt sentimentality or, even worse, blatant schmaltz.
So as an exercise in beautiful cinematography (the landscapes of Greenland and Iceland are rendered in breathtaking color and scope) and feel-good fantasy I enjoyed the film immensely. Yet films like this always leave me feeling strangely unsatisfied. I find myself thinking about all the real Walter Mittys in the world who do not manage to live out their dreams but instead toil in loneliness, obscurity, and degradation. This is something the film lacks; apart from a few opening scenes of his apartment and his desperation to connect with a co-worker on eHarmony, we have little sense of what Mitty’s life was like before he began chasing his dreams. When his awakening comes we have nothing to compare it to.
In my Film and Television 12 course we talk about cinematic conceits such as whimsy, sentimentality, and fantasy. We also talk about mimesis–the cold hard representation of reality. Walter Mitty’s story is not realistic; if we understand that going in we can enjoy the film on its own terms. If we do not understand that, we risk a kind of cinematic delusion that perhaps leaves us ill-prepared to meet challenges in our own lives. There is a lesson to be drawn from Mitty’s story, and I’ll let you figure out what it is once you’ve seen the film. But the lesson is not, and should not be, “This will happen to you too!” It won’t.
James Thurber knew that when he wrote the short story, even if Ben Stiller has forgotten it in the film adaptation.