[minor spoilers, but nothing you wouldn’t get from the trailer]
[by the by, this is my 100th post on this blog! Happy 100 posts.]
The original short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, by James Thurber (read here), is a lean little tale about a fantasist weighed down with a nagging wife. Well-told and spryly cynical, it’s the kind of story more in keeping with the anxiety-filled (and anxiety-inducing) films that tend to fill theaters now–stories like American Hustle, Gravity, and Blue Jasmine. The film’s departure from this cynicism might account for its lukewarm reception by film critics, who are turned off by its seeming “naivety”–in other words, by the fact that it has a happy ending.
But Walter Mitty is one of the best films I’ve seen in theaters this year.
It’s completely refreshing to sit through a film and enjoy it–not just in terms of critical appreciation–but to feel happier, as a person, on leaving the theater. Walter Mitty has taken the seed of Thurber’s story and embellished it with a storyline that brings it in line with other recent films about the power of fantasy and virtual life (Don Jon, Her). Unlike other films, however, Walter Mitty does not suffer from driving toward some inevitable conclusion (Don Jon’s downfall). It meanders, sweetly, punctuated by Ben Stiller’s earnest face and slender frame. The story is propelled forward by our interest in its endearing everyman character–rather than by sex, greed, violence, or any of the usual hallmarks of a Hollywood film. In this way, Walter Mitty retains a kind of purity and clarity rarely encountered outside of a Disney film, yet this sweetness and light avoids being cloying because it is incomplete, non-overwhelming.
It doesn’t hurt that the film is beautiful, either. Its stylistic flourishes remain just shy of that annoying hipster aesthetic (you know what I’m talking about), scenes full of grace that soar over Icelandic volcanoes or the offices of Life and Time. This is the kind of movie that could be used in a film class to demonstrate well-composed shots and camera techniques that move thrillingly in tandem with the unfolding affect of the story.
Ultimately, it’s a shame that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is being dismissed by film critics. The adaptation of the film from Thurber’s short story stands in contrast to, say, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit from JRR Tolkien’s novel. Its expansion (thoughtful, rather than gratuitous) of the original story adds rather than detracts, gently pushing aside the story’s underlying cynicism in favor of the kind of fantasy most suited to cinema magic. In doing so, the film stands apart (and on its own) from its story predecessor. And it’s not such a bad thing that the film ends on an uplifting note. It may be considered beneath the taste of some critics to love a happy ending (as in critically acclaimed novels, where straightforwardly happy endings are maudlin and chaotic emptiness almost preferable). But an escape into the movie theater is sometimes an attempt to seek happiness in its purest form: blissfully uncomplicated, beautiful, and sweet–and Walter Mitty delivers.