I don’t have adventures. Last time I did, I ventured into northern Alberta with Boyfriend to explore a series of ghost towns. Most of them we couldn’t get into because of mining in the area, or they had been torn down years before. On top of that, it was “that time of the month” (focus, boys) and it was one of the worst times I’ve ever had. So basically we just gave up and hung out in Jasper for the rest of the day. And that was the biggest adventure I’ve ever had.
So when I say that I’m not a big adventure person, I think you’ll get a pretty good idea of what I mean. I prefer to live vicariously through other people’s adventures, whether it’s a movie, a TV show, or just a friend’s Facebook updates while they’re in exotic locales. And I think that’s something I have in common with the titular character in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a sweet, gentle soul who owns an eHarmony account for the express purpose of connecting with a woman in his office, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig). He leads an unexciting life as the manager of Negative Assets at Life magazine, where he’s surrounded every day by photographic proof that people can and do have adventures. Longing for this sort of life but unable to follow it in his younger years due to the death of his father, Walter tends to get lost in rich flights of fancy, ranging from heroic rescues to romantic encounters to superhero-esque boss battles.
Over the last 16 years, Walter’s ensured that the work of Sean O’Connell, a daredevil photographer who’s taken a number of cover photos over the years, is represented to its greatest potential within Life magazine. One day it’s announced that the magazine is shutting down in favour of an online version, so they’ll be printing their last printed version in just a couple of weeks, and a bunch of people will be fired in the process.
Sean’s sent in a reel of negatives (because those are still a thing, apparently) and says that #25 contains the “quintessence of life” and needs to be the subject for the last issue’s cover. Only thing is, the reel is missing #25. Walter doesn’t have Sean’s contact information or even his current global whereabouts, and the only clues he has are the shots leading up to #25. Facing increasing pressure from the transition director to produce the negative, Walter follows the clues all the way to Greenland.
This sparks an epic journey that includes jumping out of a helicopter into the ocean, punching a shark in the face, biking and running and finally longboarding across a pretty big stretch of Iceland, outrunning a volcanic eruption, and eating at a Papa John’s. He sees Sean astride a plane, taking pictures of the volcano, but there isn’t an opportunity to talk to him about the negative. He goes back to New York in defeat and is promptly fired for not having the photo.
This prompts him to go into Afghanistan to have another try at tracking down the elusive photographer. He bribes warlords with cake, hikes across mountains, endures driving winds and blistering cold, grows a sweet beard, and finally, improbably, comes face-to-face with Sean. It turns out that Walter inadvertently threw out the negative back in New York, and they have a long discussion about life and the nature of things and also there’s a snow leopard.
He finally goes home again, is detained by the TSA, meets Todd from eHarmony (who’s been helping him set up his profile, and incidentally is played by the fantastic Patton Oswalt), and improbably gets the negative back from his mom, who fishes his stuff out of the garbage because she’s a hoarder. Walter presents this to the transition director with an admonition not to be “such a d*ck,” and walks out of the office in triumph.
At the end of the film, he’s getting his severance pay when he runs into Cheryl. They’ve been hanging out a little bit, increasingly as Walter’s confidence and tenacity grow throughout the film, and as he stops daydreaming quite so much. He asks her out, and of course she says yes, even though he’s shaved his beard by now. They walk by a newsstand and see the last issue of Life, and on the cover is a picture of Walter analyzing photo negatives and a shout-out to the people who made the magazine what it was.
A big theme of this movie (okay, I say “big theme” when in fact you’re kind of hammered over the head with it) is that life is an adventure. You don’t have to look too far to find any more depth here, but I suppose once you delve into “meaning of life” stuff, that already counts as pretty deep. We see plenty of shots of past Life covers, which serves to illustrate the fact that Walter’s never done anything with his life that would warrant being on the cover. And yet, in the end, it was him doing his perfectly ordinary job with his own special brand of dedication that led to the most iconic cover of all time: the quintessence of Life.
The story could’ve done with a few tweaks, to be perfectly honest. I almost would have liked for the adventure to be one big, unbroken experience, rather than two journeys with a pit stop in New York in between. I know New York’s supposed to be this huge, thriving metropolis and a seething hub of humanity, but compared with Greenland and Afghanistan, it might as well be Carmichael, Saskatchewan. (They have a population of like ten people. And it’s in Saskatchewan. ‘nuff said.)
I also would’ve liked to do without the whole “romantic misunderstanding” thing. That’s overdone to the point of cliché, in my opinion. I mean, why would ex-boyfriend/husband/boink-buddy call Cheryl “babe” if they weren’t together? How is that a misunderstanding? And when is “an attractive guy came over to fix my fridge” anything less than a setup for a story where the music goes “bow chicka bow wow”? It’s enough of a complication that she has a kid; the ex didn’t need to factor into it at all.
Also, the character of Odessa, Walter’s sister, is literally the most annoying person I have ever seen. I think she could’ve been a lot better than A) bringing cake to her brother’s workplace, although I guess that was part of one of the clues, B) a crummy actress who wants to be Rizzo in Grease, and C) overall kind of a shrill and unfortunate role who I’m sure is a lovely person in real life but had the bad fortune to play this train wreck of a character.
Apart from that, though, I really enjoyed the plot. It had subtle moments that made me laugh, heartfelt moments that brought a lump to my throat, and action-packed moments that had me talking to the screen in the middle of the movie theatre and saying things like, “WALTER THAT IS A VOLCANO AND YOU ARE GOING THE WRONG WAY.” It was a great mixture between comedy and action with just enough romance to make it poignant.
I’m not gonna lie, I thought this was gonna be a “photographer arranges a global adventure as a thank-you to his co-worker/incentive for him to go out and live his life.” The actual reality, while more realistic, still managed to hold enough of a human element that it wasn’t disappointing. Sean actually liked Walter enough to send him a present and make a bit of a show out of it; it wasn’t his fault that the message was misinterpreted. And isn’t that just how life goes?
The cast was well-chosen, too. I had my doubts about Ben Stiller, but after a career filled with mediocre movies (at least the ones I’ve seen), he does an incredible job here. He’s a thwarted character, and yet he doesn’t once make you pity him, although once or twice you do go, “Oh, sweetie,” because he’s just too imaginative for his own good. He goes from buttoned-up office worker to grizzled adventurer, and they both feel perfectly natural for the character he is at the time.
Then there’s Shirley MacLaine, who I’m sure has been in a lot of incredible and critically acclaimed movies, but all I’ve seen her in is Bewitched and I super loved her in that. You can honestly believe she’s Walter’s mother, because this is the sort of woman who’ll let you get a mohawk when you’re a kid and then keep all your stuff when you’re a grown man. She’s a wonderfully imaginative and yet pragmatic woman who knows how to appreciate things when they’re there, but how to let them go once they’re gone (read: piano).
Finally, there’s the music. This soundtrack is full of light but stirring songs that perfectly fit the tone of the movie, including “Major Tom,” which I’d never heard before but would like to give a listen to. I think without the music this movie could have come dangerously close to falling flat. It didn’t need sweeping, dramatic orchestral pieces or overly bouncy songs that are better suited to a comedy. It needed substance without seriousness, happiness without laughter, and enough emotion to add nuance to some of the slower moments of the film.
Apparently this movie is based on a story that appeared in The New Yorker, and there was a previous film before this one showed up. So it’s not an original story or an original concept, but I think there’s enough of the filmmaker and the cast in here to make it something special. Is this a best picture of the year? No, it isn’t (especially because that was already announced). But it’s eminently watchable, a great date night flick, and the perfect addition to the sort of day when you want to put on slippers, bake cupcakes, and listen to Owl City. It’s a story about life in all its mysterious ways, shapes, and sizes, and it doesn’t judge you for living small or praise you for living big. It accepts you just as you are, because whatever life you’re living, it’s yours. And you’re doing a pretty good job of it.
Final Grade: A-
- The whole Stretch Armstrong (?) thing was kinda weird. As a nineties kid, I think I missed that whole craze.
- I love that all the smarmy businesspeople have these thick and glorious beards, and yet when Ben Stiller comes in with his rugged mountain-man beard, they all look like they’ve attached dead ferrets to their chins. (I like beards, okay?)
- Sean, it’s all well and good not to take the photo because enjoying the moment and such, but if you’re on assignment, you’re kind of getting paid to do that. It doesn’t go over so well when people are like, “Hey Sean, how’s it going, where’s the picture of the snow leopard I paid you for?” and then you say, “I saw it and had it in my sights and everything but I decided not to press the button because deep reasons, that’s why.”
- Whenever a director plays the main role in a movie, I always think the casting scenario must have played out like this: “Obviously I’m the only conceivable choice to play this role, and oh, would you look at that, I get to make out with Scarlet Johansson later in the movie. HOW DID THAT HAPPEN.”
- I thought I recognized Adam Scott from some amazing movie I’d seen before, and then it turned out I saw him in Leap Year. Friggin’ Leap Year. That is all.