Monday, January 27, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Stop dreaming. Start living.

This is the tagline for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the Ben Stiller adaption of a short story by James Thurber. Stiller's Walter is a timid day-dreamer, a quiet man with a loud imagination that takes him away from his immediate circumstances in elaborate and humorous CGI-infused fantasies. A film negative processor for Life Magazine, Walter and his co-workers find their futures in peril upon discovering they've been purchased by another company, and downsizing is inevitable. Walter must find a lost negative from a famed photographer, negative #25, which will become the final cover for Life. His search for the negative leads him into a mystery and adventure that changes his life forever.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, like its titular protagonist, is without a clear identity. Is it a comedy? A drama? An adventure film? A fantasy? One is never quite sure as the tone and pacing shift and adjust according to Walter's experiences. There are beautiful sweeping panoramas of striking landscapes; there are affecting conversations about presence and beauty; there are hilarious fantasies with the tone of a goofball comedy. Perhaps this is intentional on Stiller's part, but I wonder if Walter Mitty is simply a film--and a filmmaker--going through a sort of adolescence. In adolescent identity formation, each person undergoes the process of constructing a patchwork self, a smattering of various identities that come together in quilt-like fashion, various selves stitched together into a mostly-coherent whole. A person left entirely with a patchwork self feels a low sense of self-esteem and value; it is only when one becomes aware of one's individuality, vocation, and purpose that the patchwork self is discarded for the integrated whole. Walter Mitty is about a man in his forties undergoing such a process.

Even the message of Walter Mitty is a patchwork of theses. On the one hand, we witness Walter's movement from the mundane into a life of courageous risk. When Walter calls customer service at eHarmony for help with his profile and connecting with the woman he secretly admires, he has little to offer Todd, the overly-friendly customer service rep. When asked if he's gone anywhere notable, Walter can only respond with a hesitant, "Phoenix...?" Has Walter done anything interesting or noteworthy? The question is met with silence as Walter checks out from reality into another fantasy. His fantasies only begin to diminish as he takes literal leaps of faith, beginning with an impulsive flight to Greenland, jumping onto a helicopter, jumping off the same helicopter, fighting a shark, etc. When Walter finally meets Todd in person, he describes Walter as "Indiana Jones meets the lead singer from The Strokes." Adventure. Bravery. Courage. These ABCs of escapade are perfectly embodied in photographer Sean O'Connell (a wonderful and woefully short performance from Sean Penn), a renaissance man who stitches his own gunshot wounds and flies atop bi-planes into exploding volcanoes. He's the ultimate adventurer. Walter is his inverse. Ultimately, Walter Mitty calls us into taking risks and embracing courage. Stop dreaming. Start living.

Then the final scene of the film turns this entire thesis on its head. (Spoiler Alert!) Sean's negative #25, described as "the quintessence of life," is a simple photo of Walter carefully contemplating a sheet of negatives in front of the Time & Life building. It's mundane, ordinary, the everyday experience Walter has been trying to escape for the previous two hours in the film. It's a picture of the life Walter tries to mentally avoid, first in fantasy and finally in reality. This is the quintessence of life? Walter smiles with satisfaction, the music swells, and we feel a sense of catharsis as the credits roll. Ultimately, Walter Mitty calls us to embrace the beautiful sacred adventure of ordinary life. Stop dreaming. Start living.

So which is it? Which is the abundant life, real life, the best possible way to live? The risk-taking adventurer, or the faithful and committed everyman? Which lifestyle requires more courage from us?

Maybe the titular male protagonist (and his intrepid photographer counterpart) is not the hero of this story. Perhaps there are only heroines, the three women in Walter's life who embrace both faithfulness and uncertainty. Cheryl, the single mom who inspires Walter's initial steps into adventure, briefly shares her thoughts on bravery and her recent job shift taking her to Life Magazine. She gives a brief glimpse into the life of a woman doing her best to stay committed to the responsibility of her son while pursuing her own ambitions. Walter's sister, Odessa, is a creative fireball, jumping at acting opportunities with an authentic optimism and cheer. Walter's mom, Edna, was also a single mom, a widower who nonetheless lovingly raised her children with heart and vigor. She compassionately guides and supports Walter as he navigates both his external and internal endeavors. These three women are living everyday lives, but with an optimism, passion, and presence that deserve some admiration. They embrace both courage and the mundane, the ordinary and the extraordinary, choosing to live life in present reality while also hopeful and optimistic for the future.

Stop dreaming. Start living. Whether lived in fantastic adventure or in the ordinariness of normality, life offers us the opportunity to see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel.

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