I remember as a child giggling with glee at the antics of actor Danny Kaye as I watched WGN in Chicago replay the 1947 version of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
Those memories made me both excited and trepidatious to learn that modern comedian Ben Stiller was remaking the classic film as both star and director.
Yet, to be fair, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” now in theaters is not a remake of the original, neither in story nor in spirit, but merely borrows the premise of a mild, mousy man who falls into elaborate daydreams.
The current version, while occasionally funny, isn’t even really a comedy, but rather an artsy film with lovely but quirky locations and the goal of inspiring the spirit.
And to these ends, it does a fair job. The settings in Greenland and Iceland are interesting and refreshing, while Stiller’s scene of skateboarding with childlike abandon down a winding, Icelandic highway is a real treat. Many audiences will leave the theater, or (better yet) conclude the DVD, feeling mildly inspired to follow Mitty’s example and add a little carpe diem to their lives.
The story follows Stiller as Walter Mitty, who in this incarnation is a photographic negatives processor for the now-defunct Life magazine. Once again the mild, mousy Mitty is a man lost in wild, macho daydreams while his everyday life is dull and pedestrian at best. But inspired by his admiration for a charming lady, Mitty begins to slowly open up to experiencing real-life adventures and embarks on a journey that will lead him to the icy waters of the North Atlantic, the Himalayas and beyond.
The end package is interesting and rewarding enough for a rental, but frankly, a bit too slow and even dull at times to justify a full-price movie ticket, especially when far better films, like “Frozen” and “Saving Mr. Banks” are currently in theaters.
Examining the worldview of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” perhaps best explains why the film’s inspirational aspirations fall just a bit short.
Portrayed as the key to unlocking Mitty’s adventurous side is a slogan, a motto attributed to the magazine he works for: “To see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to, to draw closer, to see and be amazed and to feel that is the purpose of life.”
It’s going to take some pretty heavy lifting by the filmmakers to convince an audience this nebulous, artsy motto is “the purpose of life.”
Just as it was a bit ambitious for Stiller to convince audiences this nebulous, artsy movie was going to compete with “Hobbit” or “Hunger Games” during the Christmas box office season.
Now, I understand the motto ties directly to the photographic reputation of Life magazine, and the phrase “the purpose of life” is a play on words as “the purpose of Life.”
As philosophical, heady, and spiritual as that motto sounds, it just doesn’t ring true enough, or at least universally true enough, to represent “the purpose of life.” It’s missing a key ingredient. Namely, the purpose part.
Why is looking and seeing amazing things so fulfilling? What do we draw closer to? What are we looking for? What makes the search and the seeing worth the sadness and the suffering? What is the treasure we’re seeking to be amazed by?
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” apparently doesn’t know the answer to these questions. It’s still searching. And to movie audiences, that’s slightly inspiring, but not really satisfying.
What is the purpose of living, of seeking, of searching, of struggling, of striving, of resting and loving and hope – what is the end goal?
To this end, I contend the old Westminster Catechism is far more satisfying than “Walter Mitty.”
“What is the chief and highest end of man?” the Catechism asks in its very first question.
It answers, “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.”
I would argue, that is what makes the seeing, the dangerous and the drawing close so amazing.
- “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” rated PG, contains roughly a dozen profanities and minor obscenities.
- The film contains a kiss and a couple of minor, lewd jokes, but no nudity and very little sexual content.
- The film contains a bit of comic violence, including daydreaming sequences of action-hero battles scenes, a slapstick fight with TSA officers and a fight with a shark. Some scrapes and bruising are seen, but nothing graphic or gory.
- The movie has only a few religious references, including the lyrics of a song that proclaim, “May God’s love be with you,” and a Himalayan totem statue that seems to spook Mitty’s Sherpas.