Movie Review

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

By Kersley Fitzgerald

Ben Stiller's labor of love, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is loosely based on a short story of the same name by James Thurber, in that the leading characters are named Walter Mitty and have fantasies.

In the original story, Mitty merely has random fantasies while running errands with his wife. In the 1947 movie with Danny Kaye, Mitty is abused by the people in his life (boss, fiancée, mother, etc.) and uses fantasies as an escape, until his courage is called upon in a real life adventure.

In the 2013 film, Mitty fantasizes about the adventures he should have been having all along.

Stiller's Mitty is a "negative asset manager" at Life Magazine — he handles and archives photo negatives used in the magazine. He has a crush on a co-worker, Cheryl, whom he's never spoken to, and has such little life experience his eHarmony account can't be confirmed. As a child he was a competitive skateboarder with a dad so supportive he shaved Walter's Mohawk. When his father died, Mitty took on the role of caring for his wise, kind mother (Shirley McClaine) and his ditsy, irresponsible sister. He loves his job, but his diligence to his work and concerns for his mother and sister keep him from having a life outside of job and family.

Mitty arrives at work to learn Life is switching from print to digital. He then discovers that the negative that is to be used as the final print cover, a photo taken by the elite, film-only photographer Sean O'Connell (played by Sean Penn), is missing. The manager brought in for the transition, besides being a jerk and harassing Mitty at every opportunity, tells him if he doesn't produce the photo he's fired. Which is really just frosting on the cake. Mitty loves and champions O'Connell's work, and O'Connell appreciates him, even though they've never met. To lose the negative is an irresponsibility and a personal failure that Mitty can't live with.

The threat of unemployment is the last straw. Between that, the encouragement of Cheryl, and his own overdeveloped sense of duty, Mitty travels to Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan to find O'Connell and get the negative.

With the choice of magazine, metaphors abound. O'Connell loves life (at times so much he prefers to experience the moment instead of taking the shot); Mitty and the other staff love Life. They're despondent that Life is coming to an end. Mitty will do whatever it takes to make sure the end of Life is perfect and fulfilling. His passion is expressed like his devotion to his mom and sister — steady, unfailing, doing whatever it takes to get the job done. The chance to be himself in a new and more dangerous environment leads him to find joy in life again.

This is a very John Eldredge, Wild at Heart kind of movie. It's interesting to see how little Mitty's personality really changes. He takes more risks and puts himself out there, but he's still quiet, unassuming, and steadfast. As O'Connell tells him while watching a snow leopard, "Beautiful things don't ask for attention." Mitty had all the skills he needed, whether it be skateboarding, mountain climbing, or the ability to fight off sharks. He just needed to remember.

The movie's rated PG. There is very little swearing. One drunk Greenlander (who opines, Don't cheat on your wife in a country with only eight people.); less violence than your average cartoon. Dev really liked the message. I thought the cinematography was gorgeous. The climax is a bit Kung Fu Panda-it-was-always-with-you kind of deal, but it's still a message we need to hear sometimes.

Because, really, in our lives it's often duty, love, and kindness that demand the most of us and lead us into the greatest adventures. And it is only when we act out of who God made us to be that we can find joy.

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Published 1-7-14