The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller’s latest directorial effort, is based on a (very) short story by the same name by American humorist James Thurber originally published in the New Yorker in 1937. Thurber’s story, which you can read in its entirety here, concerns a man who, by the virtue of daydreaming, escapes the mundanity of everyday life (exemplified most uncharitably by his nagging wife). Thurber’s Mitty maintains his innate sense of adventure in a world of overshoes, snow chains, and parking lot attendants.
Stiller’s Walter Mitty (Stiller himself in a charmingly dour role) is a different kind of man, and his “secret life” serves a different purpose in his real life and in the story. This Mitty daydreams about taking risks instead of actually taking them. His fantasies aren’t a virtue; they are endemic of a life lived in resignation. This Mitty long ago gave up the life he longed to live – a life of travel, new experience, and intrigue – for an ordinary life of everyday care for others. In this movie, Walter Mitty has spent his formative years taking care of his widowed mother and younger sister by working at Life magazine processing negatives for the world’s most renowned photojournalist (a grizzled Sean Penn).
In itself, this day-to-day, ordinary life of caring for others wouldn’t be a problem. There is great virtue in sacrificial servanthood and great reward. A life lived on the lam, like the one Mitty‘s photojournalist lives, is exciting, no doubt, but it’s also lonely. The movie isn’t about the photojournalist, but if it was, we’d probably see a life lacking deep relationship, the portrait of a man who truly values Mitty’s conscientiousness, because Mitty is one of the only people with whom he shares his life. (Sean Penn’s Into the Wild would make for a good double-feature with Stiller’s Mitty, and I wonder if that’s not why Penn was cast in the photojournalist’s role.)
Ultimately, Mitty doesn’t eschew its hero’s ordinary life lived for others. I won’t reveal how, of course, but it does eventually celebrate it. This is good, both because it’s true, and because Walter Mitty’s problem isn’t that he lives an ordinary life. It’s that he hates it. He is discontent. He wishes he was living a different life, and he must learn to love the life he’s living. Along the way, he also learns how to take risks again in the midst of his ordinary life, and his adventure serves as a parable for those of us more eager to Tweet, Instagram, and Facebook post about the lives we’re living than we are to simply live them.
What? Another theme? Yes. In addition to learning to be content and to take risks, Walter Mitty must also learn to be present in his life, to live a little for himself instead of caring what anyone else thinks. One theme is enough for any movie, and this one has at least three. Some would see that as messy. I see it as rich. There’s a lot to be challenged by in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and I like that. None of the themes contradict the others. They complement, and they are each essential elements to a fulfilling life – serve others, take risks, and enjoy what you do regardless of what anyone else thinks.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a big, scenic, exciting, funny, surprising, beautifully scored, parable about being content. It is something other than, and, I’d argue, better than the short story it’s based upon. Real life isn’t something to escape. It’s an invitation to love – diligently, with daring, and to be content in love given and received.