Very few films have the kind of impact that leaves me with a lasting desire to approach life differently, whether it’s doing more of what I’m already doing or significantly less. However, every now and then a film comes out that does precisely that and Ben Stiller’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one such film.
When I saw the initial posters and teaser trailers with taglines like “This generation’s Forrest Gump” I audibly scoffed and although I was curious I didn’t expect to like this movie, let alone place it alongside one of the most important films made in my lifetime. Ben Stiller has come a long way since cutting his teeth as a slapstick funny man, making his way into action (comedy) and progressively moving into directing and writing, but this latest piece sits at the top of the pile as some of his finest work yet.
Stiller plays Walter Mitty, a humble daydreaming image processing manager at Manhattan based ‘Life magazine‘, who’s job is threatened when a “transition manager” comes in to close down the print issue and make Walter and many of his colleagues redundant. Walter is tasked with finding the final cover image taken by renowned adventurer and photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) that has mysteriously gone missing, sparking a mission to track down Sean using three pictorial clues, that take him from Greenland to the Himalayas via Afghanistan on a journey that is funny, frightening and transformational.
But beneath all of Walter’s wild daydreams and adventures, lies a romantic comedy that is subtle enough not to override the important messages in this film. His love interest, Cheryl Melhoff is played by the magnificently dowdy but charming Kristen Wiig. Their tentative courtship is sweet and entertaining to watch without being consuming, spiced up by Walter’s fantasy world that sees him diving from a train platform into a burning building to save Cheryl’s three-legged dog and take on the role of a “poetry falcon” carrying and mountain-climbing Spanish stud who woos Cheryl by being everything Walter isn’t; adventurous, exotic, and confident.
The flashes of Walter’s fantasy world are good, but I was initially worried they would begin to detract from the film, but thankfully they subside for the most part once the film moves into it’s second act, only to reappear when Walter finds himself stuck in Greenland – with a population of “eight people” – and getting ready to give up. A fantasy Cheryl appears in the bar he’s sat in, singing David Bowie‘s Major Tom and spurs him on to break free from being just the shy, retiring basement photo-processing guy, and encourages him to take the bull of life by the horns to seek out the missing image.
The second act of the film sees Walter embark on a life-changing adventure where the lines of reality and fantasy begin to blur. I’m conscious about spoiling any key moments so I won’t go into detail, but needless to say, it’s an epic journey with some pretty hairy and laugh-out-loud ridiculous moments.
Stiller had already proven he can shoot the fantastical, the wonderful and the grand with his previous directorial work on Tropic Thunder and Zoolander, but the artful craftsmanship that has gone into Walter Mitty is of a distinctly higher calibre. In this film, we’re treated to vast panoramic landscapes and action sequences that wouldn’t look out of place in a Marvel film. As we join Walter on his journey we see a man gradually break free of his sedentary lifestyle, revealing hidden passions in skate-boarding, hiking and thrill-seeking. His transformation is something many of us can relate to, which is partly why I believe this film will have such a strong impact on it’s audience.
The supporting cast is absent of current big names (excluding Sean Penn) but regardless, they’re more than equal to the ambitions of this film, particularly Shirley MacLaine who plays Walter’s mother, and Adrian Martinez who plays his dark room assistant. Whilst I would still hesitate to put it side-by-side with Forrest Gump, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty packs a powerful, joyful and inspirational punch that celebrates qualities that we should all remember to treasure; a sense of adventure, humility, honesty and dedication to good work.
“Life affirming” were the first words that came to mind when I was asked to describe this film, and the film’s core message, inscribed on a wallet given to Walter by Sean O’Connell, and inspired by a quote from the real Life magazine’s founder Henry Luce, says it all:
To see the world; things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That, is the purpose of Life.”
If must you do one thing before the end of 2013 or going into 2014, head to the cinema from Boxing day and see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it’s a modern day classic.