Ben Stiller is not very well known for his artistry as a director. Most people think Ben Stiller, they think goofy. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, Zoolander, Tropic Thunder…the list seems endless. However, there is one film that stands out in his movie repertoire. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a courageous, beautifully crafted film exemplified by its sweeping cinematography and dream-like imagery. Combined with themes of adventure and self-development, the film is Stiller’s best work to date.
Stiller both directs and stars in this inspiring and thought-provoking movie loosely based on a short story by James Thurber. While his acting is a bit debatable, mostly because of the lack of personality of the character in the first half, his choice of direction is what makes this film one of my favorites of all time. Maybe it’s because I’m a daydreamer, maybe it’s because of my longingness to travel the world, but story and cinematography in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty hit me right in the heartstrings and is the film that I credit to putting me on the path to wanting to make films as a career.
Stiller plays the character Walter, an easily overlooked, anxiety-ridden daydreamer who is stuck at a mediocre job at Life Magazine. His daydreams frequently interrupt his day and he finds himself living in his head more than in reality. The film opens with Mitty attempting to send a wink on eHarmony, the dating website, to the subject of many of his fantasies, Cheryl Melhoff. Melhoff is played by Kristen Wiig, who portrays a surprisingly normal role as opposed to her usual goofy comedy. Both Wiig and Stiller pull of their characters in a low-key way that I didn’t know was possible when compared to their past performances.
This movie displays remarkable character development. Walter goes from fading into the background to a rugged, adventurous traveler in the span of almost two hours. Walter’s online dating counselor, Todd, played by Patton Oswalt, continuously calls Walter to check in on his eHarmony profile progress. By the end of the film, he has gone from a blank “noteworthy and mentionable” section of his profile to one overflowing with stories of travel, sharks, and volcanos. While some critics may argue that this development isn’t plausible, I found myself in tears by the end of the film. The movie presents a story of hope. It’s never too late to change your life, take more risks, or travel. You could be the most boring person in the world (like Mitty) and turn your life around.
Although the daydreams are a bit elaborate, comprised of chase sequences and explosions, Stiller also uses moments of simplicity to convey big themes and emotions. One of the most memorable quotes of the film, said by Sean Penn’s character, an elusive photographer that Walter has to locate, is “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”. And I believe that Stiller is trying to display that in his film. The most beautiful shots, in my opinion, are the calm, clean ones. Walter skateboarding down rolling hills, a car driving through the Icelandic landscape, a sweeping shot of the characters playing soccer at sunset. The entire film is bonded by the simplicity of a man who is in wonder with all he sees. The camera movements and shots represent Walter’s awe of adventure to the audience.
Stiller found a way to present a film about travel, inspiration, and risk-taking, all without being too boring or too overdone. His usual over-the-top comedy is replaced with a subtle humor that charms the audience into chuckling to themselves rather than laugh-out-loud. This tale of escapism will resonate with the wanderlust and adventure that audiences long for in their daily lives. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty sends the message that life is meant to be lived, not just pass us by.
So what are you waiting for? Pull a Walter and jump into a helicopter being flown into a storm by a drunk Icelandic pilot. Make a clementine cake for a bunch of warlords. Longboard in Greenland towards a ready-to-explode volcano.
Do something, as Todd from eHarmony in the film says, “noteworthy and mentionable”.