The Secret Life of Walter Mitty    
Directed by Ben Stiller    
Written by Steve Conrad based on the story by James Thurber   
Starring Ben Stiller, Sean Penn, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Patton Oswalt, Adam Scott   
116 minutes  

Walter Mitty, the dependable and serious manager of Life magazine’s photograph archive, is a daydreamer living a featureless existence. He dreams of being a hero in epic adventures and of winning the heart of Cheryl Melhoff, a colleague he is to shy to court. But when the magazine is taken over by another company, and the print edition is about to be closed, even Walter’s quiet way of life is at stake. But life is going to call him to an unexpected adventure. When the picture negative for the last Life print edition cover is missing Walter decides to go and find the photographer who shot it. It is the beginning of an adventure in which he will find himself and to make his dreams come true.

This last work by Ben Stiller is a free adaptation from the short story of the same name by James Thurber that appeared on The New Yorker in 1939 and was made into a movie with Danny Kaye in 1947.

Life, the magazine Walter works for, has always based its strength on its print edition and on its photo features. However, the truth is, times have changed and the magazine has to change too (reality is that the printed edition of Life has ceased to exist some years ago and this fact emphasizes the elegiac tone of the movie). One of the main themes of the movie is indeed the nostalgia for a glorious past that has been overcome by a new and faster way of life.

The magazine has been taken over by another company and the manager of the transition is a mean guy who enjoys making fun of Walter and firing people. He is also appointed to issue the last print edition of Life… but the negative of the photo meant to be the cover, which had been sent to Walter, is missing. Cheryl, the colleague Walter never found the courage to court, suggests that he go and find the negative — and his lost dreams. So while the possibility of being fired gets more and more real, Walter decides to go after Sean O’Connell, the photographer who took the picture, to get the negative back no matter what.

Walter’s journey to find himself will be full of moments of surreal comedy (Walter will be forced to fight with a shark in the middle of Arctic Ocean and run from a volcano eruption on skateboard) but also of adventure and contemplation. He starts living a life similar to Sean, who is the (stereo)typical Life adventurer, but also a kind of philosopher and life guru, a man who ignores the rules of our modern fast and shallow world. While social networks are invaded by selfies, he still uses negative rolls and sometimes doesn’t even take the picture so as not to lose the moment.

From both his mother and Sean, Walter learns how to let the past go when it’s necessary, how to live a worthy life and finally to find the courage to dive into existence instead of running away from reality.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a movie of its own kind and can frustrate expectations as well as it gives some pleasant surprises. It is not a screwball comedy as other movies directed by Stiller (like Zoolander) are, and at the same time, it is not a drama for someone who would expect a story stuffed with meditative moments and deep words. It’s a movie that one can appreciate only at the condition that one leaves irony and cynicism out of the picture. Although the movie is suspended between the nostalgia of a time we should be able to let go, and the uncertainty before an inevitable and ruthless future, it has its best moments when it invites us to live in the present — the only place where an unpredictable joy can still be waiting for us.

Problematic features: none.

Laura Cotta Ramosino is a story editor for Rai Uno, the national Italian broadcaster, and contributes to different magazines and websites about cinema and television.

Laura Cotta Ramosino works for Cattleya, an Italian production company, as a creative producer and story editor for several television shows. She is also a regular contributor to the website Sentieri...