...shining light on the media, one review at a time
As children, most of us imagine what we’ll be like when we’re adults—what great things we will accomplish or even the simply happy people we’ll be. Then adulthood comes and, for many people, brings a moment of realization that the adult reality is nothing like the life of the imagined future. For some, the differences are not necessarily negative, but for others the reality of having gone a different direction is a disappointment.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty tells the tale of a man who faces such a crisis of realizing he has become someone far different than who he started out to be. Addressing both the idea of betterment through challenges and the value of all people, no matter how “unsuccessful” they appear, this film is an artistic and creative piece filled with stunning cinematography and staggering footage of the beauty of nature.
The artistry and hilarious tongue-in-cheek wit lead to a fall, however, in the surprising amount of profane language that spoils this otherwise delightfully original film.
To look at the docile, clean-cut Walter Mitty, one would never believe he was once a teenaged skateboarding fanatic with a Mohawk. But when life threw Walter a curve, he had to grow up fast and shoulder the responsibilities of a grown adult, providing for a dependent family.
Walter has never stopped being responsible ever since, eventually settling into a position in photography development with LIFE magazine. His sixteen year stint with LIFE is suddenly in jeopardy when new owners take over the magazine and announce a transition into LIFE Online, which spells the end of the magazine’s print version.
With extensive layoffs threatened from the new antagonistic bosses, the atmosphere at the magazine is tense as preparations are made for LIFE’s last print issue. The cover will feature one final image from the famous photographer, Sean O’Connell, whose photographs have graced many a LIFE cover.
Walter will have the honor of preparing that photograph, just as he has for sixteen years. This image is not only important because it will be the last cover for the magazine, but also because it is, according to Sean, the photographer’s greatest photograph ever—the “quintessence of life.”
There’s only one problem, Walter can’t find the photograph.
More than Walter’s flawless history with LIFE is on the line—his job, the coworker he has a crush on, and his view of himself are all at stake. He must find the photo, even if it means going outside his comfort zone and becoming the person he has long wanted to be.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is no ordinary film. That much is obvious from the moment the movie begins. The feel generated by the individual look of the piece is so completely fresh and original that one’s interest is immediately captured and held for the duration. While a few elements of the plot are predictable, the visuals and mode of telling the story result in one delightful surprise after another.
The first scene of the film contains no dialogue, but manages to convey a complete, complex portrait of Walter’s character. The creativity builds from there, continuing in a compilation of jaw-dropping images and experimental storytelling techniques that beautifully serve, rather than detract from, the story.
In addition, the picture includes an element that many truly artistic pieces lack—comedy. Again revealing an unusual degree of originality and creativity, the filmmakers employ a trenchant, satiric wit that manages to be both smart and innocent, while refreshingly using little slapstick or crudity.
Like Walter, whose imagination frequently runs away with him, this film is uniquely imaginative, usually with enjoyable results. The messages that the picture conveys, however, have a harmless appearance but are only partially positive at best and completely faulty at worst.
The most central theme, judging from its frequent repetition, is the LIFE motto that Walter sees and references throughout the film. The motto is, “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.”
Any Christian viewer, of course, will immediately see the problems and inaccuracy of this statement as it directly contradicts the true purpose of life. Perhaps such viewers will find disregarding this theme simple enough, but a few more stumbling blocks remain in the mixed signals of the film’s other messages.
On the one hand, the majority of the movie suggests that Walter should not be content with his life as a responsible, hardworking person who favors safety and submission. His change into an adventurous risk-taker is affirmed by the story, especially by the approval Walter gets from others when he takes chances and becomes more of an “interesting” person.
In contrast, the film’s final thematic thrust seems to instead emphasize the value and importance of Walter, and others like him, before he changed, when he was a normal, hardworking individual who cared about his unglamorous work and did it well. Yet, the aforementioned theme that applauds excitement over “ordinary” living still remains strong at the end, even while being simultaneously contradicted.
This thematic confusion leads to a less satisfying ending than one might desire, while also leaving viewers open to absorbing an erroneous idea that risk-taking adventurers are better and more admirable than other people. Still, because the final message of the picture attempts to undo that idea, some viewers may not deem the thematic dilemma enough to spoil the film.
The other negative content in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, however, may be enough to ruin the viewing experience. Despite the film’s PG rating, the supposed “mild language” included is disturbingly offensive. The bulk of the language problems sadly come in the form of profanities. The name of Jesus is abused at least twice and God is profaned half a dozen times or more. Obscenities are also used, including one s-word, a couple uses of “h---“ and “kick a--,” and Walter calls another character a “d--k.”
Sexual content is kept to a minimum, but a few incidences add some sour moments. In one scene, Walter is told a group of sailors are “horny” and desperate to get to a strip club. Walter’s sister wants to play a character in a play who has a reputation for teenage sex, and in a scene that’s meant to be comedic, an Icelander with a heavy accent stumbles into saying “erection” when he means a volcanic “eruption.”
In addition, Walter’s love interest has a son whose father is in and out of her life, though she emphatically states he is not her husband. This same woman jests about a “Latin lover” at one point and Walter imagines himself to be a Latin explorer who has a mildly suggestive conversation with this woman.
Such negative content is particularly disappointing in an enormously clever and thoroughly entertaining film that otherwise could have been wholly enjoyable and uplifting. Even the acting in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is pure genius with director/actor Ben Stiller as Walter giving a remarkable performance of his highly varied role opposite solid supporting actors who all give excellent portrayals. Like a delicious cherry on the top, Sean Penn drops in for a powerhouse turn as the famous photographer.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has a great deal to offer in artistic and visual appeal, as well as creative humor and feel-good entertainment. For discerning viewers, however, such entertainment may lose its appeal when it includes the profaning of our Lord’s holy name.
“‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.’” – Deuteronomy 5:11