It is a rare moment indeed when you walk out of a movie and feel like you’ve been a part of something magical, or even somewhat life changing.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty provided just such a moment, a surprise from a movie that on the basis of the trailer at least, looked like an entertaining enough epiphany-lite romp through Scandinavia and the Himalayas with the always charismatic Ben Stiller in the engaging lead role, and nothing more.
Charming, sweet, enjoyable, and beautifully put together, yes but life-affirming? I honestly didn’t expect that from it.
That is not to damn even slightly this marvellous movie, which stars Stiller as the titular Mitty, a man who works as the Negatives Asset Manager at LIFE magazine, an irony given he is a man who is manifestly disappointed by lower case life, which promised a great deal until his father died at 17 and he was forced to take the dead hand of cold hard reality and do what was needed to earn money to support mother Edna (Shirley MacLaine) and sister Odessa (Kathryn Hahn).
It is not that he doesn’t like his life, proud as he is of his role in helping LIFE to publish its enthralling, award-winning photos, many of which have been taken by Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), a rugged, fearless photojournalist with whom Mitty has formed a close, if physically distant, working relationship, a man who is the antithesis of Mitty’s well-within-the-lines corporate hive worker.
He is everything Mitty would like to be, a fact underlined over and over in a series of delightfully-realised fantasy sequences which feature Mitty doing everything from fighting his new disagreeable boss Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), a man charged with closing LIFE down and moving it online, on the streets of New York in an Avengers-style battle, and rescuing the dog who belongs to object of his office affections, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), from an unexpected fiery blast in her apartment building.
In these “zoned-out” moments, Mitty is living the sort of life he thought would be his when he was a younger mohawk-wearing championship skateboarder, a life whose possibilities were greatly truncated by the death of his beloved father and which has never realised its potential.
That is until a missing negative, the one nominated by O’Connell as perhaps his greatest yet, and selected as the cover of the final issue of LIFE, goes missing and Mitty has no choice but to jump on a plane to Greenland to track down the elusive photographic genius and hopefully retrieve the elusive image.
This uncharacteristically daring moment sets in train a series of life-affirming journeys through Greenland (where he endures a particularly hair-raising helicopter ride to a ship offshore at the hands of hilariously drunk pilot played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), a volcanically-active Iceland and finally the Himalayan section of Afghanistan.
As his search for O’Connell, who Mitty seems to miss his quarry by hours each time, moves on, the once timid negatives asset manager comes alive, the shackles of what he had become dropping away little bit by little bit as he realised life did have real possibilities and that he was capable of a great deal more than he has given himself credit for.
It may all sound like a rather predictably corny tale of triumphing over the odds, achieving what you set out to do and doing it in spades, but Stiller as both director and producer, making the most of a finely-calibrated script by Steve Conrad, does an exemplary job of not overplaying his hand dramatically, meaning that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is less an over the top Tony Robbins-esque inspirational polemic as a quiet, realistic and yes heart-warming portrayal of one man’s reawakening.
The film doesn’t so much proclaim its transformative power via fireworks or rousingly persuasive firebrand speeches as talk to you earnestly, and with good humour around a water cooler at break time, its power lying in glorious understatement that nonetheless still packs the aforementioned ability to trigger a life-altering moment, or several.
And that is its great strength.
Sure Mitty’s adventures, both real and imagined, are grandiose excursions of heroic proportions but they are firmly rooted in the entirely natural exchanges he has with his mother and sister, his slowly burgeoning love interest Melhoff, and even with the man who becomes a friend of sorts, eHarmony customer service representative Todd Maher (Patton Oswalt), who is used a barometer of just how far Mitty travels in the film.
Everyone, bar the gleefully cartoonish Hendricks, whose larger-than-life persona as an “evil” corporate down sizer is the perfect foil for Mitty’s mousey self-defeatist toiler in the corporate bowels, is exactly as you’d expect them to be in real life, lending Mitty’s eventual transformation the air of the entirely possible, a rare thing in Hollywood movies which usually tend towards the emotionally or narratively verbose, losing all power to transform in the process.
Stiller’s real gift is making Mitty’s transformative journey, which is every bit as fantastical and far-ranging as you’d expect it to be, seem entirely within anyone’s grasp.
It is circumscribed by financial constraints, familial responsibilities and eventual redundancy sure, but it happens anyway, in ways incremental and yet noticeable, much as you would expect it to take place in someone’s life.
This rooting in the everyday even as it dances on the edges of the utterly magical and epically imaginative lends The Secret Life of Walter Mitty a real substance, an unexpected storytelling backbone, taking it beyond another feel-good, romantic-comedy-esque movie into another realm altogether.
And yes making the pursuit of dreams, no matter how stymied or denied, or outside of the realm of expectation they may be, entirely feasible.
That is wraps such an inspiring message up in an emotionally rich, finely nuanced movie that delights and enthrals at every turn is simply the icing on a very delicious (Clementine) cake.