“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That this is the purpose of ‘Life’” -credo of Life Magazine
These are the words stenciled across a wall in the office of Life Magazine, where the title character, Walter Mitty is employed as a ‘negative asset manager’. The term refers to photo negatives, but it could just as easily apply to his own opinion of himself in the remake of the Danny Kaye classic from 1947, based on the James Thurber story about a man with what I refer to as a ‘rich inner life’. In this version, a likeable Ben Stiller is often at a loss to express verbally what is in his heart or on his mind. He gets distracted in thought, seeing himself as an action hero, rather than live in here and now reality, since it is far more fascinating.
His world is black and white (again an allusion to the dichotomy between his imagination and waking reality) as the streets on which he walks, the building in which he works and the home in which he lives, are begging for color to be splashed on them.
As the movie begins, he is sitting in a remarkably linear, organized, almost sterile apartment, figuring out his elderly mother’s budget since she is to be moving to an apartment in a senior community. Mom is played by a wise and beautifully aging Shirley MacLaine who becomes a link in the chain of events and a mystery that Mitty needs to solve. He then switches from mind-mode to heart-mode as he taps into a dating web site to send a ‘wink’ to a woman who appeals to him. He hesitates at first, afraid to take the bold step to connect with her in cyber space. The saddest part is that he does know her in the face to face world, since she is a colleague who he sees at work daily and fantasizes about sweeping her off her feet in various and sundry ways. Saturday Night Live cast member Kristen Wiig plays the lovely Cheryl who joins Mitty on a quest to find a missing photo negative sent to him by ‘legendary’ photographer Sean O’Connell played by a weathered looking Sean Penn. This icon values his long time professional relationship with Mitty and entrusts him with the photo that is to appear on the final paper version cover of Life, since the magazine is about to go on-line. Its whereabouts send him to Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan, LA and back to NY in search of this ‘holy grail’. Comic relief shows up throughout the film in the form of Todd who works for the dating website and encourages Mitty to spice up his profile.
Without giving away the rest of the story, Mitty embarks on the Hero’s Journey-experiencing a call to action, traveling way beyond his comfort zones (Mom provides him with some insight into why this former skateboarder who sported a Mohawk in his teens has become so emotionally challenged), facing his dragons (one a bearded bully of a boss), immersing in his fears and coming back with a trophy in the form of a skateboard, returning to himself and discovering the purpose of his own life.