Friday, January 3, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (is my previous blog entry. Exactly.)

By a stroke of coincidence, I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty the same day I finished Susan Cain's intensely life-affirming book, Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.  Commenting on the fact that I'm an introvert is like commenting on the fact that I'm a woman - it's too obvious to bother discussing, so let's move on to something more nuanced.  (Affinity for nuance is one of the characteristics of introverts.)

The eponymous short story that inspired the Ben Stiller-directed Walter Mitty is one that my mother assures me I must have come across at some point in my schooling career.  If I did, I don't remember, and as I haven't yet tracked down a copy to read, I cannot say with certainty how much the 1939 original was embellished by Hollywood.  For reasons I'll get to in a minute, though, I'd say quite a lot, and the story, which I cautiously approached as yet another protagonist-comes-out-of-his-shell saga (precisely the sort of thing that Quiet argues is counterproductive to a world stocked to the gills with people who are drained dry by constant cultural pressure to be "on") was both far more and far less than I imagined.

The film starts at a computer, but moves quickly to the offices of Life magazine where Walter, played by Stiller, is employed in the negatives room, and which, in a cleverly obvious way, acts as a metaphor for life itself.  Change is afoot.  Life is moving online (life is moving online) though before it does, there will be one last print issue, the cover photo for which is Walter's responsibility.  It's a picture so exquisite that the photographer himself, a ghost-like Sean Penn, names it the best he's ever taken - the quintessence of life.  Unfortunately for Walter, it's nowhere to be found.

Walter is the daydreaming sort, an introvert if ever there was one, but - voila! - now he has the opportunity to step out of his fantasy life and into the real world on a mission to track down his picture.  Will he rise to the occasion?  Of course he will (how else would there be a film?), and that is the surface of the movie, though it is on this point that the story was less than I envisioned, and in the best possible way.  Walter Mitty does take charge of his life, but he sacrifices none of his thoughtfulness or conscientiousness in the process.  The word "introvert" has misunderstood and negative connotations, but it's merely a descriptor for people who thrive on alone time, and benefit deeply from their rich mental landscapes.

Walter goes on a life-changing journey, yes, but it's a solo mission.  The goal here is not to morph into an extrovert.  It is to more fully become Walter.    

The movie's other message, though, the arguably subtler one, goes to the heart of something that wasn't even conceived of when the short story was published.  Walter got lost in his head, but that's not where most of us are drifting off to these days.  It's not him so much that needs saving as the cover-less Life (make that life).  Sean Penn, in a ruggedly understated performance, quietly delivers a gut-punch to the Instagram generation in a scene that serves as the film's philosophical climax.  Modern communication methods get screen time from start to finish, but time and again, that's not where the connections take place.

Yet for all that, it's a comedy, and a smart, non-gross one at that.  There's a scene misinterpreting the aging mechanics of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (another short-story-turned-Hollywood-powerhouse) that made me laugh until I cried (though admittedly, mine is a strange sense of humor).  And alright, there were some gaps in the logic and little of it was all that believable.  But overall, I truly enjoyed it.  I appreciate a movie that makes me think and one that makes me smile, and this one did both.


Oh, and while we're on this topic...have you heard that Newsweek is going to back to print?  (!!!)  If you've been reading this blog long enough, you'll remember that its switch to digital, followed by its embarrassing decline in quality, was something that weighed heavily on me. 

But maybe all is not lost!  (And the Walter Mitty in me is thoroughly, if quietly, thrilled about that.)

Picture yanked from The Hollywood Reporter.

1 comment:

  1. I remember reading that short story in school . . .