The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is All About the “Quintessence of Life”

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) has been escaping into daydreams for all of his life in order to cope with his daily routine. And although he has worked at LIFE magazine as a photo developer for 16 years, he has never actually adhered to LIFE‘s motto: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”

Unfortunately, LIFE is being shut down. But before more than half of the company gets laid off, they get to make one last magazine with a cover photo that captures the “quintessence of life” shot by adventurist and photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). There’s just one problem—Walter can’t find the photo that’s supposed to go on the cover, and his director, Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), is breathing down his neck. With the help of his crush, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), from Accounts, Walter finds his courage and goes on a real adventure through Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan to track down Sean O’Connell and the lost photo.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is yet another movie being marketed as a comedy when it’s more of a drama. Look, Hollywood—”drama” isn’t mutually exclusive with death, depression, and unhappy endings. In fact, most dramas end well; they just have more serious subject matter (Think Silver Linings Playbook). Even though the 1947 film of the same title was a comedy, and the short story (also of the same title) by James Thurber had more comedy, Ben Stiller (who starred and directed) went with more of a dramatic route, focusing a good portion of the movie on the purpose of life, not on the daydreams themselves. Let’s break it down, shall we?

There are two versions of Walter Mitty in this movie, each of them personifying the difference between lifestyle and living. I know that sounds weird and confusing, but bear with me here. The “lifestyle” Walter is a little gray blob just going to work, hiding in the background, and taking care of his unemployed mother and sister. This Walter is kind of depressing because he reminds us of the people we are right now—the person who’s just a number in society, who’s working hard to support other people, who has to daydream to escape the misery of everyday life. Poor “lifestyle” Walter even has his lifestyle put into question by a dating website customer service representative (hilariously played by Patton Oswalt), who asks him if he’s ever done anything worthwhile. 

And there’s “living” Walter, who gives up the tedious routines for something more courageous. This Walter is the adventurer inside of all of us, who doesn’t let the world walk all over him because he’s too busy walking all over the world (literally). He’s the person we want to be. Ironically, this Walter is the audience’s onscreen daydream.

The movie plays with a lot of duality in Walter’s character growth, as well as in color psychology and deeper meanings. For the first part of the movie, there are dark colors, grays, and whites in Walter’s wardrobe and in the scenery around him. They’re sterile, they’re professional, yet they’re also kind of sad. As the movie goes on, however, we start to see brighter colors. Similarly, the movie’s underlying messages change as it goes on. In the beginning, there’s commentary about the economy and the job market. The office where Walter works continuously gets emptier as workers are laid off, and Walter, himself, is constantly being berated by his slick-suited manager. Then, the commentary changes into something more hopeful. Suddenly, Walter’s life isn’t about work anymore, which we know by the way LIFE‘s motto is interwoven in the movie’s visuals.

Essentially, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is trying to inspire us to stop daydreaming and start living—Walter, himself, even admits that his daydreams stop as soon as he went on his adventure to track down Sean O’Connell and the lost photo. And to be honest, the part where that lesson really struck home was when Sean O’Connell decided not to take a picture of a snow leopard he tracked in the Himalayas. He told Walter that the reason he didn’t take the picture was because, sometimes, he liked to experience a moment rather than ruining it by seeing it through the lens (Hint: The lens is a metaphor for daydreaming). And, of course, when we finally see the “quintessence of life” photo that makes LIFE‘s cover, you already know it’s of Walter. Again, there’s a dual message. Walter is one of the people who has worked tirelessly to make LIFE magazine what it is, yet the story is also about his journey to understand what life is really about. Hence, “quintessence of life.”

Shit, this movie is deep. Don’t misunderstand me. It’s deep, but it’s not perfect. In fact, the cheesy CGI in the daydream where Walter fights his manager was eyerollingly bad. And worse, it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the daydream sequences. Even the transitions between scenes were a little jumpy. But the overall message of the movie, the gorgeous cinematography (I mean, seriously, I didn’t think anything could make me want to visit Greenland), and Stiller’s thoughtful and sensitive direction made everything just work. Also, major props to the filmmakers for working in David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” That song was absolutely perfect for this movie.

Overall, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is about taking the courageous leap and becoming the person you’ve always wanted to be. Ben Stiller understood that inside and out, and you could see it in his performance as Walter Mitty, as well as in his direction of the movie. There’s somewhat of a Stranger Than Fiction vibe here. The film has funny moments, but it’s more about the serious life lessons. It only faltered in a few spots with some awkward sequences. Generally though, it was beautiful, both in visuals and in meaning. All I’m saying is not many movies can get me to leave a theater and reflect on the decisions I make in my own life, but this one did.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: A-

4 thoughts on “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is All About the “Quintessence of Life”

  1. Bit late to comment, but I only saw Walter Mitty last week. I liked it and its relative subtlety most of the time (though the fantasy fight was too long and out of place). Although Kristen Wiig didn’t have all that much to do except be an affable grown-up, I liked that this film, unlike some sort of standard rom-com, did not put Wiig and Stiller’s burgeoning friendship through a lot of implausible hoops and contrived hysterical setbacks and misunderstandings. OK, there was one mild rom-com-lite misunderstanding, but still.

    Interestingly, in a way almost all the film plot was itself largely pointless, in that none of it need have happened if Mitty had been paying a bit more attention and looked more carefully when he got the original package from O’Connell at the start. I think the skateboarding-in-Iceland scene is a short encapsulation of that [MINOR SPOILER] in that he could have just got in the packing-up-and-escaping guy’s car at the beginning of that scene instead of clambering up a mountain and skating in exhilarating down the long empty road to the empty town and then finding packing-up-guy coming after him to give him a lift to safety. But then – the journey is the thing as well, not just – or even more than – the maguffin-cum-final destination, both for that scene and the movie as a whole. And indeed life. For what is the final destination of life (and LIFE)? Death.

    One or two contrivances seemed done for the benefit of the plot rather than because the character would have done it… like Walter throwing the wallet in the bin, and O’Connell having never met Mitty but turning out to have visited his mum, or some random kids swapping a skateboard for a stupid toy. Other contrivances – finding the O’Connell’s future plan clues in the cake wrapping on the ship, running into the right helicopter pilot at the right time, finding O’Connell on the mountains – I think are fine, the sort of magic-realist, something-weird’s-going-on feeling that suits this sort of movie. Though I wish that aspect had been handled with a slightly more magical touch – the touch of people like Powell & Pressburger (A Matter Of Life And Death), for instance.

    I don’t know if the volcano Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced [ˈeːɪjaˌfjatl̥aˌjœːkʏtl̥] according to Wikipedia) has made much impression in the USA but in 2010 it had a major eruption that shut down European airspace for six days, incidentally “trapping” me in France, where I was and had to stay considerably longer than I intended.

    BTW I don’t think any of the film was shot in Greenland… you may still want to visit Iceland, which stood in for Greenland and Afghanistan as well as itself and is a location for all sorts of projects. I’ve never been, but amazingly, Iceland is close enough to where I live (the south west of England) that about ten years ago my mother went on a charter day-trip from Bristol! Early start, late return, and three hours each way in the air, but doable and indeed done.

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