‘Walter Mitty’ proclaims ‘Live your life!’

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (2013). Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Shirley MacLaine, Patton Oswalt, Kathryn Hahn, Adam Scott, Adrian Martinez, Ólaf Darri Ólafsson, Marcus Antturi. Director: Ben Stiller. Screenplay: Steve Conrad. Story: James Thurber, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The New Yorker magazine, 1939. Web site. Trailer.

The allure of living a larger-than-life existence holds an undeniable appeal for many of us. Our conception of such a life can indeed inspire and propel us into a richer, more rewarding, more fulfilling way of being – that is, as long as we actively seek to bring it into realization. By failing to move past a purely hypothetical view of said reality, we run the risk of cheating ourselves out of fully embracing the experience that is physical existence, a point made clear in the entertaining new whimsical comedy, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) seriously needs to get a life. The mild-mannered, somewhat geeky bachelor leads a quiet, rather Spartan existence. He spends his days working as a photo editor (or, more precisely, “negative asset manager”) for LIFE magazine, meticulously overseeing the periodical’s library of memorable, magnificent images. But, despite the crucial role he plays in connecting the magazine’s readers with the richness of life’s wonders, he’s personally reconciled himself to an existence on the sidelines of reality, one not really connected to the world he so brilliantly showcases to others through the photos he selects to publish.

Interestingly enough, Walter has compensated for this lack of engagement through the development of a very active and extremely vivid daydreaming life. He routinely zones out, losing himself in elaborate fantasies, heroic adventures in which he envisions himself far differently from the Walter who plods through everyday existence. But, no matter how colorful these escapes may be, they ultimately prove less than satisfying. Thus the challenge for our long-suffering hero is to figure out how to bring those escapades to life – for real. On some level, Walter knows he needs to do this, too. He’s grown discontented with living his life vicariously, be it in his vocation, his daily routine and even his romantic life. But how does he go about implementing the necessary changes to make his life more genuinely fulfilling?

Walter’s opportunity comes when he learns that LIFE is making the switch from a print publication to an online periodical. In preparation for the magazine’s last print edition, he’s charged with ensuring that the final issue’s cover photo is safely processed for publication. The image in question was shot by one of LIFE’s longtime iconic photographers, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), a reclusive, globe-trotting shutterbug who has always been one of Walter’s idols. Walter looks forward to working with Sean one last time, and, at least initially, everything seems to be going well – that is, until the negative ends up missing. Now what?

Under considerable pressure from higher-ups to deliver the image, Walter realizes he must find the missing photo. But, to do that, he must first find the elusive photographer, a quest that forces him to embark on an adventure like the ones his idol partakes of on a daily basis. In other words, Walter must at last get a life of his own.

It’s a daunting prospect to someone so unaccustomed to these sorts of grand exploits, but, with such a critical task to carry out, Walter realizes he must do what it takes, no matter what the cost. His remarkable odyssey will ultimately take him to Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan, and it will bring him into contact with people and places he had once only dreamed of. It’s a lot to go through to find a photo, but, in the process, it also affords Walter an even greater reward – the opportunity to find himself.

Walter’s chief lesson in all this is rather obvious – that he needs to learn how to live his life, not just daydream about it. Getting to that point, however, requires making some necessary adjustments.

For example, facing down one’s fears is essential, for we’ll never get to know what it’s like to participate in certain aspects of life unless we’re willing to move past our apprehensions of trying them out. As he’s depicted in the film, Walter isn’t an especially fretful soul, but, as someone who has rarely given himself permission to engage in life’s adventures, he lacks the experience necessary to routinely engage in such behavior. He must develop the courage to push past that self-imposed barrier to become more fully involved in the manifestation of his existence. When you think about it, that’s pretty ironic for someone who works for a publication named LIFE. But that also probably explains why he’s a photo editor holed up in an office and not a photographer working in the field; through this choice of vocation, he immerses himself in life’s reflections but not in its experiences.

If Walter is ever going to change, he also needs to alter his beliefs, the internal means by which he manifests the external reality he experiences through the conscious creation process. At first glance, this might seem like a challenging task, but, when one considers the breadth of his creativity (as seen in the fantasy sequences portraying his daydreams), he clearly possesses quite an extensive palette of imagination to draw upon – if only he’ll allow himself to avail himself of it.

Some might question the maturity (or even the sanity) of someone who so routinely escapes into a world of fantasy, and those arguments certainly have merit. However, such flights of fancy also illustrate a remarkable capacity to stretch creatively, to push the limits of one’s beliefs, qualities that help to illuminate the range of one’s manifestation skills and all that they make possible. In that sense, then, Walter’s daydreaming sessions could be looked upon as a sort of metaphysical training ground, spotlighting the means by which he envisions creative possibilities before actually attempting to materialize them. Indeed, there is something to be said for practice – provided we don’t stay stuck in that routine forever. After all, life is meant to be lived, not just imagined.

When we lack practical, hands-on experience in creating our reality, we may find it challenging, even perplexing, to engage in the practice when we finally attempt to do so consciously. But that need not be the case. Since our outer reality is a mirror of our inner, belief-driven world, we can draw upon externalized clues that reflect our intents, manifestations that help to make us aware of what we’re creating, perhaps even validating that we’re on the right track.

For instance, such signs can take the form of synchronicities, those little, fortuitously timed “coincidences” that seem too fitting to be characterized as purely random. Walter repeatedly encounters these hints in dealings with his sister (Kathryn Hahn) and his mother (Shirley MacLaine), as well as in his review of photographic clues designed to lead him to his missing idol. Further “evidence” of conscious creation at work can come in the form of pronouncements from muses. Their often-unexpected statements ring true with sparkling clarity, providing insights that are precisely what we need to hear in moments of crisis or when potentially life-changing decisions are called for. In Walter’s case, they frequently come through when he needs their advice most. Some of his muses are people he already knows and admires, like Sean. But others take wholly unanticipated forms, such as an online dating customer service representative (Patton Oswalt) who counsels Walter on ways to court Cheryl, a co-worker and potential new romantic interest (Kristen Wiig). But, regardless of how our intents are reflected back to us, we’d serve ourselves well to pay attention to them, for they often prove invaluable in helping us get a life. Just ask Walter.

On balance, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a thoughtful, engaging comedy. Its visually stunning cinematography (especially in its sweeping landscape shots) and inventive fantasy sequences are quite enjoyable. The film’s clever editing leads viewers out of Walter’s everyday life and into his daydreams with a seamless proficiency that I’ve rarely seen in movies attempting comparable feats.

However, despite these strengths, the picture also suffers from some serious pacing issues, especially in the sequences falling between Walter’s daydreams and between his real-life adventures. Those transitional segments – most of which involve Walter’s painfully dull conversations with Cheryl and his tediously repetitive confrontations with his boss (Adam Scott) – lack energy (in large part due to Wiig’s miscasting) and would benefit from some judicious snipping. The film also includes far too much blatant product placement, making some scenes look more like commercials than entertainment.

Still, in spite of these shortcomings, “Walter Mitty” expresses some nice sentiments, and it does so rather skillfully. That’s particularly true of its exploration of living on the fringes of life as spectators rather than as actively engaged participants. Walter’s evolution sets a good example to follow, especially for anyone who feels a need to leave behind a secret life for one that’s on full view for all to see – especially ourselves.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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