Today’s musings aren’t about a book, exactly. It’s about a film based on a story, and about the structure of the movie’s telling of that story. I’m talking about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, out at Christmas last year and starring Ben Stiller. I liked this movie, but I would have liked it more if the structure had been a little bit different. There’s a section that I would have cut out, and in my humble opinion, the story would have been better for it. Basically, I think that the story lost its momentum when Walter goes into the Himalayas to find Sean O’Connell, the character played by Sean Penn. Needless to say, there be spoilers ahead.
Up to this point, we’ve seen Walter portrayed as a man who did some cool things as a kid and as a young man, but who somehow lost his way and confined his reality to the mundane while dreaming of high adventure. He has the same “dream sequences” as the literary character, and like that character, he has never stepped out to do anything unusual. The movie underscores this by having Walter try to make an eHarmony dating profile and getting called up by a representative from the company when he leaves it unfinished. This guy Todd (played by Patton Oswalt) talks to Walter several times, urging him to think about what he’s done that’s exciting. He functions almost as the voice of Walter’s imagination, the child in him yearning to get out. When Walter starts his quest to find Sean’s lost negative, he comes to a point where he has to just act, without doing his normal worrying and brooding over it. From the moment that he jumps into the helicopter on the spur of the moment, his adventure unfolds and he’s swept along in it, barely having time to process one event before the next one looms before him. That, I think, is the tone that fits the movie, and the story, the best: it shows Walter’s journey from someone living inside his head too much to someone who can actualize his dreams, even if it takes a literal leap of faith to get them started.
I really thought there were some beautiful moments during this sequence: his imagining the girl he’s attracted to singing “Space Oddity” to him as he runs to the helicopter; Walter skateboarding down a road in Iceland with his arms out and smiling; Walter talking on his cell phone as the sun sets behind him. All of these moments typify how Walter is bringing his young self back to life (there are mentions of him skateboarding as a young man and hoping to travel with his dad).
The place where I thought the movie lost that sense of wonder was when he returned briefly to the States and then set off into the mountains to find Sean. For me, this part of the story felt too planned and contrived–rather than going with the flow as Walter did in the first half of the movie, now we see him planning and consulting maps, trudging through a featureless wilderness. The joy, the wonder, and the magic were all gone. When he does find Sean, he nearly walks right past him, because he’s so consumed by the mundane that he can’t see what’s right next to him, quite literally.
His short time with Sean is where I’d pick up the movie, so essentially, if it were up to me, I’d keep Walter’s adventures to a single continuous sequence, and let him grow and expand in that time. The break lost the momentum that had been built up to that point. It certainly didn’t ruin the movie for me, but I couldn’t help but do a bit of creative editing in my mind as the film progressed.
Has anybody else seen this movie? Got any opinions on the matter? Leave me a comment!