This might turn into a regular thing here. I’m not sure yet. But the point of it is to catch up on things that I and likely others had missed out on. They won’t be full-on reviews, but they will be deep considerations on the core of the subject, and today, it’s all about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Also, yes, there will be light spoilers. Nothing too serious, though.
I believe a great deal of what you get out of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is how much you identify with its themes. Mitty himself, a chronic daydreamer played by Ben Stiller and working as a negative assets manager in the last days of the print version of LIFE magazine, is someone nearly everyone can relate to. He’s at least not unhappy with his job, his superiors are dicks, and his love life is nonexistent, mostly for lack of trying.
But it’s not him the person that you are supposed to relate to. It’s a bit tricky considering how the movie opens. Mitty, recently signed up for eHarmony, is trying to send a Wink to a coworker that he has a crush on (played by Kristen Wiig). He sits there, finger hovering over his mouse, trying to will himself to click the button. And finally, through a moment of Fuck It, he jabs at it. Terror takes hold, regret, and…it fails. Then it fails again.
This, I suppose, sets up many people to believe that Mitty is the conduit through which we ally ourselves in this 2013 drama. Whether it’s taking a shot at the bar before you approach the guy or gal that has caught your eye or psyching yourself up before a big job interview, we’ve all experienced this moment. No matter what anyone says, nerves are universal. It’s just whether they get the best of you that makes a difference.
That scene, however, is deceptive. In that categorical consideration, we shift our perspective behind Mitty, shadowing him physically and emotionally for the next two hours. But the truth is that we should be standing behind Todd Maher, an eHarmony customer service representative Mitty calls shortly after he fails to send that first Wink.
Todd is the film’s equivalent of a Greek chorus. Detached from the actual proceedings of the movie’s narrative (for the most part, anyways), he simply comments on Mitty and his life. Mitty’s eHarmony profile is blank. He has nothing to contribute to his Been There, Done That section. He can’t even muster up the courage to ask out a girl he sees every day, opting to throw in an online proxy between them and his self-determined rejection.
Todd sees all of this and cuts right through it. How can someone, as old as Mitty is, not have anything noteworthy to contribute to his own, self-promoting dating profile? How can someone never been somewhere or done anything? How can someone not be willing to take a chance on something they want so badly?
In that last question, we find the true heart of The Secret Life. As determined as some people are to make this out as an ode to the triumph of the human heart, that love and will can guide you through the sea and storm—a real “Just Do It” ad as Variety’s Peter Debruge puts it—the movie is actually about the other half of that equation. It’s about the people that see the possibility and don’t do anything about it, not the ones that go the way of Mitty and jump out of helicopters and escape volcanoes.
It’s because we are Todd. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Todd is a happy man working a decent job and making new friends like Mitty all (or at least some) of the time. But Todd is also never going to do the things Mitty does. We see and we observe just like Todd. We make the same comments and ask the same questions, and just like Todd, we stop the train there.
Only tangentially are we connected to this meaty story. It can be a depressing notion, but it’s one that eventually everyone accepts. Every step along the way Mitty was set up for failure, and not just in the conventional sense. Had LIFE not been going down the toilet and forced to transition to an online entity, he would never had to engage in the first steps of this adventure. He could have died at the hands of the helicopter pilot, or the volcano, or in the Himalayas.
We would have. We would have gone down so easily because the absolute core of the film is that Todd wouldn’t have made it. He couldn’t have fended off the shark or skated down that long, winding Icelandic road. And in our case, it wouldn’t matter either. Sometimes we simply aren’t the heroes of the story. We often play the bit roles, supporting others as they accomplish their goals. Your existence, in the majority of its moments, is nothing more than an extra on set.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, however, encourages you to be okay with that. Or at least shows that there’s nothing wrong with it. Todd is a great guy, but he doesn’t have what it takes to be Mitty because this story is about Mitty. We just see what he does, and all we can do is cheer him on. And that is a pretty good time any way you slice it.