The Secret Life of Walter Mitty tells the story of a reserved Negative Assets Manager, Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), working for Life magazine as it goes through an acquisition that will see most of its staff “downsized” in its transition to an online-only format. Nothing in Walter’s life is interesting. Since the death of his father at a young age, he has been the responsible one in the family. Nothing went according to Walter’s boyhood plans, but everything is routine and stable. The monotony of maintaining this stability leads Walter to frequently daydream; imagining incredible scenarios where he is the hero… or at least one of the most interesting people on the planet.
Walter is seen as a space case, but is generally liked and very reliable when it comes to managing Life‘s photo assets. That is, until a very important negative comes up missing. This particular negative was intended to be the cover shot for the final print issue of Life. The missing negative sends Walter on a globe-spanning journey to track down the elusive photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) who took it, so Walter can ask him why the photo wasn’t included in the negative roll he sent and where it might be.
Reviews for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty were pretty mixed when it came out, but Kim and I saw it in theaters and it flew to the top of my list as one of my favorite movies of all time. I bought a copy as soon as it came out and have watched it several times since.
Walter’s daydreams, while extreme for some people, are something that we can all relate to on some level. We all have fantasies where we’re better looking or more athletic or just generally more interesting that we really are. It’s a mechanism to cope with the boredom that can stem from routine. Most of the criticism for the movie was about Walter’s absurd fantasies, but quite frankly, I related to them quite a bit. Fantasy is a fantastic way to deal with the sometimes boredom and frustration of working an office job (especially during long stints between travel).
That said, the movie really takes off when Walter is convinced by his love interest, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) to chase down the elusive Sean and solve the mystery of the missing negative. This journey takes Walter from New York to Greenland, Iceland, Yemen and the Himalayas in Afghanistan. While the movie was not shot in most of these places, Iceland is used as a fantastic stand-in for most of them.
This is where the movie truly shines – sweeping shots of scenery that are some of the best I’ve ever seen in a film. They really bring us into Walter’s journey as he is reminded that sometimes, life can truly be more incredible than any fantasy. It’s in these moments of travel that the landscape becomes as much of a character as any that the actor’s are portraying. The movie highlights those moments of travel bliss that have happened to anyone from the once-in-a-blue-moon vacationer to the seasoned globetrotter. Those moments where our mind goes, “Holy shit- am I really here right now? Is this really happening!?”
There are several scenes in the movie that highlight the benefits of travel for me. Some point out the sheer personal joy of the unexpected and unique experiences that happen while traveling, like Walter’s biking through Iceland or skateboarding trip down a beautiful, curving road in the same country. Others highlight another lesson that traveling has taught me – that people are generally good-natured and welcoming, regardless of nationality. Walter meets quite a crew of characters on his travels, but a scene near the end of the movie involving some highland variation of soccer in the Himilayas really highlight this lesson for me.
It is this unadulterated positivity that permeates the movie. Some may call it sap, but for me The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is likely my favorite feel-good movie. It captures everything I love about traveling and wraps it in a story that I related to on every level. Seriously, check this movie out on your next long flight (or when your longing to get out of town).
Have you seen the movie? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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