Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Secret Life (a movie review post)

I first read "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" when I was in middle school. I don't remember being all that impressed with it at the time. There was no "man! This is the best thing ever" kind of moment. However, it is a story that has stayed with me through the years. Even though there was no "wow!" moment, it failed to fade away, whereas many stories that I'm sure I liked better at the time are completely gone from memory, as if I never read them. I've never bothered to go back and read it again, though. I just left that impression of the story from when I first read it hovering around in my mind.

With that in mind, my immediate reaction to hearing about the movie was, "Oh, that would make a great movie," and the trailer, with the part where Ben Stiller steps out of the arctic scenery had me convinced.
And, really, I didn't think there was anyone more suited to pulling off a "Walter Mitty" type than Ben Stiller.

At this point, of course, many people would be rushing out to read the short story before seeing the movie, but I strongly resisted that urge. For me, more often than not, having read the source material ahead of time is a good way to make me dis-enjoy a movie. So that's how I went into Walter Mitty, with a vague impression of a story I'd read 30 years ago.

This will be very spoilery, by the way, so be aware.

I think the movie starts out fantastically. There are all these moments where we shift into Mitty's imagination without realizing it until he snaps back to himself. It meshed well with my vague impression of the short story, and Stiller was great in those scenes. What I really liked, though, is the reaction from the people around Mitty. Especially the stuff from Ted Hendricks (played by the excellent Adam Scott).

Unfortunately, the daydreams get more and more fantastic as the movie goes along leading to an epic battle between Mitty and Hendricks through the streets of New York as they fight over a Stretch Armstrong doll. The power of the earlier scenes is that the daydreams are (mostly) normal. They are the kinds of things that anyone would wish they had done instead, things like asking the girl out or telling off your obnoxious boss. So, in the early movie, it's not always clear when he's gone off in his head until he snaps back to reality, and that stuff works really well. The fantastical stuff works less well.

Still, even the fantastic stuff, the superhero fights, would have worked well in small doses if the film had stuck to Walter Mitty being this guy that just goes off in his head. However, to make the point of the movie, Mitty eventually moves off into a real life adventure full of fantastic moments. Like, you know, getting attacked by a shark or skateboarding near a volcano while it's erupting. These things made me uneasy with the movie, and, although I was enjoying it, I wasn't fully enjoying it, because it just didn't feel right.

Of course, what I kept wondering was whether it was because it wasn't fitting with my perception of the short story.

To be clear, I enjoyed the movie well enough. I especially enjoyed the ending moment of the movie. But I was still feeling... unsettled... about the whole thing. Okay, that meant I needed to find a copy of the short story so that I could figure out if that's what was causing the issue. And I did that, and the short story and the movie are not really alike except that the movie takes the concept of the story and turns it into a movie. After all, the short story is only a few pages long and is about a trip into town with Mitty and his wife (Mitty has no wife in the movie. In fact, that is part of the conflict in the movie, Mitty wanting "the girl"). There is no revelation in the short story that life is better lived than imagined.

The departure from the source material didn't really bother me. Well, there was some botherment in that the movie changed the point of the story, but, really, that was okay overall. But it was still bothering me. The movie, that is. After a lot of thought, it finally settled in me what it was:

The idea of the movie, which is right there on the poster, is that you should live your life, not daydream about it. And, really, I get that. There are those things that we should not just wish we did, you know, like ask out the girl. What's the worst that's going to happen, after all? She'll say no and you won't go out with her which you're already not doing so just ask her out already. However, telling off your boss is not necessarily the best idea in the world. Not if you want to keep your job.

Of course, part of the idea of the movie is that you shouldn't want to keep your job. Your job keeps you from the things you are dreaming about, so you should just take off and do those things. It's a message that's impossible for the "normal" person to do. I mean, here's the thing, in the movie, Mitty is this 40ish, single guy with much more money in his bank account than the average person. We do see that he's concerned with money and somewhat compulsive about tracking his money, but, really, he's doing okay and has thousands of dollars available to him, so, when he decides to take off, he's able to just do it. Most of us (I'd guess 99% of us) can't just do that kind of thing. And he's single with no kids. So, like, if I was a real asshole (language, I know), I could just wipe out my family's finances, abandon my wife and kids, and go live life as the movie suggests. That's what it would take, ruining the lives of the people in my family. And that's where almost all of us are, and, I suppose, that's why the movie falls apart for me: it supposes that any of us can just (ought to, in fact) get up and do the things we've always dreamed about. And, maybe, some of us could. If we're real assholes. Because it would take abandoning our families, jobs, responsibilities to do it. Then, therefore, this idea of just taking off becomes another dream that we can't actually attain.

Not to mention that upon quitting your job and taking off, you suddenly become without an income source and, eventually, you're going to be screwed. I'm not thinking it's likely that it's going to be all that easy to get a new job when you just abandoned your previous job.

I suppose, in the end, I would have liked the movie more if it was actually about a guy that was constantly losing himself in his daydreams instead of being about a guy that learned to do the things he always daydreamed about. I think there was probably more to be said in the story they didn't tell rather than the one they did, one that is actually told all the time. It would have, at least, been kind of unique.

The acting was good, though. Stiller was great. I loved Adam Scott. Kristen Wiig was Kristen Wiig, which is great if you want Kristen Wiig in a role, because no one plays her like she does. Kathryn Hahn was also pretty hilarious. Sean Penn is... well, he's there, which is what he's supposed to be. Patton Oswalt was amusing; that whole story line is interesting and goes along with the idea of the movie which is both good and bad, I suppose.

The movie was enjoyable, for sure. It's good. It's just not great. I mean, telling people to live their dreams is all well and good -- I'm for that -- but, if that's going to be your message, I think you ought to tell people how to do that in a realistic way, because taking off for Iceland and all the rest of what follows is hardly something that's going to work out for most people.


  1. Not one I'll see in theaters but might check out on NetFlix.
    There are things we can do without abandoning everything, but sounds like the movie went way beyond that.

  2. I'm sure I'll enjoy it once I get around to seeing it. And I like the moral i picked up from our post. I can't remember it now that I said it, and I can't just look back up at our post. Something about leaving your family to go lava skiing with sharks. Got it. All good movies teach us something.

  3. They really did change the feel of the story, then. It was always hard for me to tell if Walter Mitty was happy, or sad. I think that was part of the point: that he didn't know, either, if he was happy or sad, and also that the people around him didn't know that he dreamed these things.

    If you're right about what happens here, they've taken what could've been an interesting character study and made it into "THE FEEL-GOOD MOVIE OF THE YEAR!!!" Which I suppose is what people want in their movies.

    I think somewhere in between being an asshole and dumping your family, and being unhappy, there is a happy medium where you and your family might make reasonable compromises. It would be amazingly selfish of me, for example, to say "I'm going to quit my job as a lawyer and just be a writer, so good luck with money," but it is reasonable to do it as a hobby and use SOME of the family resources to see if it will pay off. So if you want to go lava shark surfing or whatever Rusty's going to do, you could reach a compromise with your wife/kids that would let you do that.

    The message that just quitting everything out of the blue is a good idea is not one I like. The message that if you don't like your life it's capable of changing is one I do.

  4. Going out and living is fine but at the end of the day I just want a nice soft bed to sleep on.

  5. I didn't realize it was a short story. I'm glad to hear you liked the movie despite it's flaws. Not a great movie but a good one means I'll wait for it to hit Netflix or HBO. Thanks!!

  6. That movie was made in 1947 by Danny Kaye. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0039808/

    Not sure when I watched it, didn't particularly enjoy it, but I have never forgotten it either. I certainly wouldn't bother to a) read the book and b) see a remake.

  7. Alex: He does actually sort of abandon his mother and sister in the movie, but, still, he doesn't have a family to abandon. No wife and kids. Still, the meta-message of the movie is, really, to be like Mitty: just go.

    Rusty: Sharkano! With lavasharks! Awesome idea!

    Briane. There's your new idea, Briane, courtesy of Rusty and me. Go for it.

    And, yeah, that's my point. Leaving everything behind and taking off is not the only option.

    Pat: And, see, you used "at the end of the day" in an appropriate way. I love that.
    Seriously. Because I'm so tired of hearing "at the end of the day" from everyone who is trying to prove a point about something.

    Elsie: Yeah, it's a good story. Short. You should read it.

    Jo: I saw that movie when I was kid, but I don't really remember it. Now, I'm wondering if the new movie was re-make of the old movie or an adaptation of the short story.

  8. Interesting. That's one we've been talking about seeing. I think we'd enjoy it, and since I've never read the story, there would be no conflict there. The theme though...

  9. Crystal: Well, within the movie, it's not a big deal; it's the implication that that's the only way to make your dreams live that's the issue.

  10. Okay, you've sparked my interest. I may have to go and see it.

  11. I liked the story, which is why I wasn't so sure about the movie. I wasn't sure it could translate well to the screen. It sounds like that might be true.

  12. Michael: Mostly, it's a not movie that needs to be seen at the theater, so it won't be a loss to see it on the small screen.

    Jeanne: I think it could translate well; I just don't think it has so far. Actually, I could be wrong. Maybe, I should go back and watch the old b&w version again.

  13. I didn't know he ended up having real adventures...not like the short story at all!
    I'm sure I'll see it if it ever comes to Netflix, but here's the thing...I LIKE living in daydreams. I always have. It would be impossible for me to leave my family behind and go off and adventure like the rare adventurer can do. That's what daydreams are for. :)

  14. RG: That's just not culturally acceptable, you know.

  15. I am really glad you are doing these movie reviews. For one when I watched the preview movie trailer for this movie it really looked boring and well I'm not a real fan of Ben Stiller either. Not sure I will watch this at a theater, but will add it to my list for Redbox Movies. Have a great weekend!

  16. G_G: I do like Ben Stiller, quite a bit, actually. But this definitely isn't a movie that needs to be in the theater.