We all know what it feels like to be Walter Mitty, imagining ourselves as achievers and darers far beyond our normal lives. The original short story by James Thurber is about a middle-aged, hen-pecked man who daydreams about dashing adventures as he is out running errands with his wife. In this version, directed and starring Ben Stiller, Walter runs the photo library for LIFE Magazine. (For you young people out there–this is not a metaphor. There actually was a photojournalism magazine called LIFE. From 1936-1972 it was kind of like a proto-version of Buzzfeed that came in the mail every week. Before television and the internet, it was our first chance to see what the rest of the world looked like, with gorgeous, indelible, iconic images of movie stars and ordinary people, world leaders, athletes, and military battles.)
Every day, Walter walks to work past enormous, blown-up images of LIFE covers and the magazine’s motto: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer,to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”
Like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Walter once planned to see the world but family obligations kept him at home. Now, he spends his days as a “negative asset manager” cataloguing images taken by the dashing photojournalist Sean O’Connell (a rugged gem of a small performance from Sean Penn). While one is risking his life, the other takes no risks at all. He can barely bring himself to touch the computer key to “wink” at a woman on a dating website. When asked to fill in the “been there, done that” space on his profile, he realizes he has not been anywhere or done anything.
She isn’t a stranger. Cheryl (Kristin Wiig) has just come to work for LIFE. If he cannot work up the nerve to cyber-wink at her, you can bet he does not know how to begin to talk to her in real life. Walter might have stayed in his quiet, safe, lonely little world forever, living through his daydreams and half-living in reality. But there comes a time when real life intrudes on dreams.
Things are coming apart at LIFE and in life. The magazine has a new boss (nicely smarmy Tony Scott) who uses a lot of smug corporate-speak like “Some of you are non-vital.” Walter’s mother (Shirley MacLaine!) is moving into assisted living. And Sean sends in a roll of film with what he says is his best image ever, with a special note for Walter. But that image is missing. And to find it, Walter will have to discover how close he can get to being the daring, adventurous hero of his dreams.
As a director, Stiller is developing a more assured visual style and there are some bracingly robust images, befitting a story about LIFE photographs, the man who takes them and the man who sorts them, the man who goes places and the man who looks at the pictures of places. The only way to find Sean’s photo is to find Sean. He takes pictures in places so remote and exotic they are not reachable by text messages or Skype. That means a journey, physical and spiritual, through rocky, icy terrain and using every kind of transportation, including helicopter and boat.
The film is filled with lovely and surprising touches. The story unfolds organically. Like a video game hero, the items Walter gathers along the way turn out to be vital in keeping him on his journey. Along the way, Walter keeps checking in by phone with the tech support guy who was supposed to fix his online dating “wink” function, as though he does not realize how his life is transforming around him. I won’t give away the surprise by naming the actor on the other end of the phone; I’ll just say that he is ideal for the part. I liked seeing Walter drew Cheryl into his search very naturally, and how Walter was able to be shy but still very capable around her and around her young son. There are moments of true exhilaration and the end has an unexpected sweetness. If you’ve been daydreaming about a great film for the family to enjoy together over the holidays, take them on a journey to see this one at your local theater.
Parents should know that this film has some sexual humor, mild language, and action-style peril, reference to sad death of parent
Family discussion: Why was it hard for Walter to take risks? Which of his real-life adventures was the scariest?
If you like this, try: “Stranger than Fiction”