Full disclosure: I haven’t read James Thurber’s 1939 short story by the same title nor have I seen the 1947 movie. While I plan on doing both eventually, this is all about Ben Stiller’s version. I loved it and think it’s something everyone — particularly those of us that are hunkered down at our desks behind computers all day — should go and see. There are spoilers for the whole movie in here, just so you know.
The premise is something we can all relate to, I think, especially those more interested in the world(s) inside of our heads than the real one outside of our window. Walter Mitty processes negatives for the soon-to-be-defunct Life Magazine, assisting world famous photojournalist Sean O’Connell in his documentation of Earth without ever actually leaving the confines of his dank little office. When Sean’s negative for what is going to be the magazine’s final cover is lost, Walter breaks free of his stifling, droning life and tries to hunt it down in Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan, following Sean’s trail and encountering a number of characters and adventures along the way.
I agree with what some of the critics have said about the movie; it panders a bit, it’s a crowd-pleaser (also known as “optimistic” but even optimism has been co-opted by pessimists). But I like that. I like when things aren’t about the world being terrible. There are some structural problems, a few too many plot coincidences, blah blah blah. Stuff a film critic can harp on all day long and miss the things that matter.
My only real issue with it is that the world outside of Walter’s head feels too small. Meaning, this is a guy that lives in his own head with daydreams of heroism brought on because he was never able to fulfill his own dreams, opting instead to take care of his family after his dad passed away. The movie is about breaking that mold — living life, seeing the world — but when he finally does so, the grandeur of the world, particularly from Walter’s POV, is somewhat limited in scope despite what the best efforts of the cinematographer. But ultimately, it doesn’t really matter.
The film is funny and it’s sweet and unapologetically pleasing, but I think it has important things to say, which goes back to what I mentioned about those of us that live in our own heads more than anyplace else. Creative types tend to do that, either out of an unwavering need to create or bills that are themselves unwavering in their need to be paid (usually it’s both). But living in your head all the time is dangerous; you run the risk of falling out of sync with your peers and the culture that surrounds you.
While he’s not creative in the sense that I’m using it, Walter’s daydreaming is the same type many of us suffer from, I imagine, and thus we see he’s a bit out of touch. He doesn’t communicate well out loud (we all sound better in our heads) and he can’t even relate to pop culture references (the Benjamin Button scene, for example). It’s not until Walter leaves the comfort of his head that he’s able to open up — and his daydreams decrease — and appreciate everything that surrounds him.
The anchor of the movie is really Sean Penn’s one scene, where O’Connell tells Walter that, sometimes, when he’s on a shoot and there’s a moment that he loves, he doesn’t take the picture. That the camera just gets in the way. That it’s more important to enjoy the moment for yourself. Where he tells Walter that “beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”
It’s a scene that distills what the whole movie is about — “the quintessence of Life,” as O’Connell writes in his note to Walter — and it puts everything that Walter’s done into perspective. This is underlined by the very end of the film, when he finally finds the missing negative, the impetus of this entire journey, and he doesn’t bother to look at it. It’s irrelevant. Walter’s found the beauty of life and it can’t be captured in a single frame.
At the same time, when Walter finally sees the final cover of Life and it’s himself simply working outside of the Life building, the impact is so powerful because it reminds us of Walter’s journey. If Walter hadn’t undergone this enormous adventure, would he be as appreciative of this image? Would he just see a reminder of his “trivial” life or would he still understand that even the trivial moments are beautiful? Trivial moments certainly don’t ask for attention — that’s why they’re defined as trivial — but oftentimes they are indeed the most beautiful things we have in life.
So why is this relevant to writers/artists/musicians/etc.? Walter Mitty isn’t any of those things (though he is a pretty rad skateboarder). But the underlying message we can take away from it is that living life is necessary to inform your fiction and your art. It’s impossible to interpret culture or society or people or love or art without experiencing it for yourself first hand. Creating and living in the worlds of your mind is often a reprieve from reality and is usually more exciting than our normal lives. But I think this movie is a nice reminder that the smaller things matter, too, and experiencing them will only improve the perspective and truth that you can bring to your fiction.
Because the beautiful things don’t ask for attention, you’ve got to find them out for yourself.