Partway through “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” the camera follows the title character (played by Ben Stiller) as he runs past a series of wall-sized blowups of famous LIFE Magazine photographs, including a gorgeous image of a drive-in movie theater in Salt Lake City playing “The Ten Commandments."
At the end of the shot, Mitty runs past a fantasized image of himself as an astronaut. It’s a poignant moment that underscores the film’s “seize the day” message, pointed sharply at our tech-centric culture.
Inspired by a James Thurber short story, “Walter Mitty” is the simple tale of a daydreamer who finally decides to take charge of his life. Stiller’s protagonist works as a negative asset manager for LIFE Magazine, providing thankless coordination between the magazine’s intrepid photojournalists and its monthly content.
He’s far too happy to zone out into exciting fantasy sequences rather than take the action necessary to realize his heart’s desires. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his relationship with his co-worker crush, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), who Mitty hopes to engage via an online dating service even though she works 50 feet away from him.
It’s a relatable dilemma, but his comfort zone is breached when after decades of excellence, LIFE decides to go online-exclusive, and Mitty is tasked to deliver the negative that will be used for the magazine’s final cover. There’s only one problem: the chosen negative was never sent to Mitty’s desk, and Sean O’Connell, the enigmatic photographer who shot it (played perfectly by Sean Penn), isn’t the kind of guy you can just call on the phone.
Fearing for his job and his magazine’s legacy, Mitty is presented with an opportunity: track down O’Connell, get the negative and maybe change his life in the process. What follows is an inspiring adventure with real-life action sequences that are far more satisfying than Mitty ever could have daydreamed.
Though it shares its name with the Thurber short story, Stiller’s film (he also directed the effort) is a radical departure from the original source material. Stiller takes only the basic concept of a daydreamer who is dissatisfied with his life and invents his own modern-era story from there.
One of the more obvious updates involves the explicit references to contemporary businesses. Rather than linger in the background, companies like eHarmony and Papa John’s (and obviously LIFE Magazine) are integrated into the plot of the film, if mostly for laughs.
But even if the product placement is glaring, audiences will have an easy time focusing on the uplifting message of the story, which is much more critical than “Walter Mitty’s” plot. After all, the plot twists aren’t all that unexpected, and often the pieces come together in too convenient fashion. But that’s OK.
“Walter Mitty” is a heartwarming, inspiring and genuinely funny film. And it’s also a rare-PG option that will entertain its audience without feeling dumbed-down. At a time when many late-release films are gunning for Oscar nods with heavy, soul-wrenching performances and dark themes, “Walter Mitty” may make a better fit for the holiday season.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is rated PG for action violence, vulgarity and some mild profanity.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.