The Missed Opportunities of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
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Let me be frank: I am very serious about daydreaming. I daydream to figure out how to solve problems, to rehearse how to get through difficult situations, to motivate myself to work hard, to give myself hope. I also daydream to escape reality when it gets too painful or boring. I spend a large chunk of my mental life daydreaming, and another hefty portion analyzing my own imaginings, trying to puzzle out when my daydreams help me and when they hold me back. So when I saw the first trailer for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty—a re-imagining of the famous 1939 James Thurber short story produced, directed and led by Ben Stiller—I had high hopes for a film that explored both the power and pitfalls of daydreaming. I was disappointed.
First, though, let’s talk about the good stuff. The movie has some really beautiful cinematography, especially as Walter’s real life adventures take him to exotic expanses in Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan. It has some very nice comedic moments, my favorite being an awkward conversation between Walter and a drunk-and-getting-drunker helicopter pilot (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson). The way text was integrated into the film’s environment (both opening credits and, later, the—fictional—Life motto) was playful and creative. The soundtrack was a standout. Its PG rating makes it a safe choice for an all-family holiday movie outing. Sean Penn is in it. And the film had the beginnings of a compelling visual motif—leaping and falling—that could have been even more thrilling if it had been developed further and backed up thematically.
And there’s the rub. The film doesn’t have a solid theme. I couldn’t tell you what Stiller thinks about daydreaming. I couldn’t even tell you what Walter thinks about daydreaming. In the beginning, we’re shown Walter’s inner life, but the rules of his daydreaming aren’t clear. They seem to exist more for comedic effect than to help us understand and empathize with Walter. One daydream slips so far into ridiculousness that it threatens to undermine the entire film’s tone. (Oh, you’ll know it when you see it.) During some later potentially meaningful moments, my brain kept flipping back to that absurd daydream, which would’ve been more at home in a bad SNL skit than in this movie.
During the course of the film, we’re shown daydreams that hurt Walter and at least one daydream that helps him. We see him start to live more in reality than in his head. We see him change. Will the new, adventurous Walter Mitty still daydream? If so, why and about what? This seems to be an important question in in a film about daydreaming and living in reality, but it doesn’t get answered, let alone considered.
We’re also denied the pleasure of watching our hero struggle to master reality. Walter’s transition from daydream hero to real-life hero is quite smooth. Once he makes the choice to engage with reality, things (pretty much) go his way. I would’ve liked to see him stumble more, not out of cruelty, but because it’s more satisfying to see someone on screen achieve after failing than waltz into success. Plus, I know from personal experience that it’s hard to leave the cocoon of a daydream for real life, with all its disappointments and unpredictable obstacles. I wanted to connect with Walter’s journey, not be jealous of it.
Another frustration: The film is full of very specific repeating elements that don’t seem to tie into any theme. A Stretch Armstrong doll, in particular, plays a significant role in the film for no apparent reason. The plot is built around the last issue of Life magazine, and even though it provides the impetus for Walter’s adventure and an inspiring motto, all the attention to the editorial drama is superfluous. Are these simply things that Stiller is interested in and wanted to include? I don’t know. The film lacks that sense of purposeful choice, that every part is essential to the film’s raison d’etre. Probably because the film doesn’t have a clear reason to be.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty had a lot of promise: A lead character we want to cheer for, visual thrills, a wonderful supporting cast (Kristin Wiig, Adam Scott, Patton Oswalt), beautiful settings. But without a clear theme anchoring the story, the film floats and flounders.
What part does daydreaming play in your life?