“Beautiful things don’t ask for attention,” Sean O’Connell, played by Sean Penn, philosophizes in Ben Stiller’s recent blockbuster, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
The film follows the daydreaming, droll, and unexceptional negative assets manager of Life magazine, Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), as the magazine transitions through a merger. Mitty’s final job is to publish the last cover photo, negative 25 by renegade photojournalist Sean O’Connell. O’Connell calls the photo his “masterpiece” and the “quintessence of Life.” But when the negative is missing, Mitty is sent on a wild chase across the globe in an attempt to track down O’Connell and discovers that life is brimming with possibilities if one is willing to get up and go.
The film, hailed by some to be the millennial form of Forrest Gump, reached for Oscar aspirations, but, in the minds of many critics, it fell short of its lofty goals. On Rotten Tomatoes, the rating of the critics was a lowly 49 percent, and on Fandango’s rating system, the critical response was “So-So.”
Mike LaSelle of the San Francisco Chronicle remarked that the film was “logic lost in a dream,” in which an air of whimsy had to be continually pumped throughout, lest the film collapse like a soufflé. Dana Stevens at Slate expressed frustration: “Neither the spiritual insights nor the jokes always hit the mark, and sometimes one cancels out the other, giving the film a curiously neutral, blank quality.” On Rotten Tomatoes, however, 76% of the audience liked the film, with an average rating of a 3.8 out of 5. Search the tag “Walter Mitty” on Tumblr and you will find a multiplicity of posts, some with thousands of likes. It seems that indifference on the side of the critics is unbalanced with the public response to the film.
The movie struck chords housed deep in some hearts, while others found it too idealistic and enigmatic. The disparity between the critics’ and the public’s reaction to the film provides a lens into the way we have come to understand and view art.Within the bounds of traditional film and aesthetic criticism, many of the critics’ observations are accurate. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is not the darling of criticism. It is a bit of an anomaly with an almost nostalgic look at life. Luke Buckmaster argues in his review of Mitty that the film is a “sort of cinematic gateway drug that plays around with art film concepts for audiences who don’t necessarily want to watch an art film.” The quote appears to suggest that the critical value of the work is degraded when an artist creates with the enjoyment of the people in mind. High art is for the critics, and low art is for the people.
But this is a false dichotomy: all art is intended for all people.
Art isn’t just for those with aesthetic terminology and critical facility but for the general public as well. The problem with criticism is that, at times, it can dull our emotional faculty for experiencing art for the sake of emotion and instruction. Perhaps Mitty asks us to lay down our critical minds for a time and to imagine what life could be. As Mitty hikes treacherous mountains and jumps out of hovering helicopters, a sense of possibility exudes from the, albeit implausible, circumstances.
The question is then: do we believe in the possible? What the disparity between the critics and the audience forces us to take into account is our own cynicism. Are we able to accept the dazzling optimism that the film presents us, or will we grumble and lump it with the plight of the naïve? Perhaps there is something to learn from the viewer who feels the film without understanding the complex narrative, cinematography, or structure of it? What then, as critics and viewers, can we glean from the film? What gives the film a its emotional resonance are its accessibility, simplicity, and sentimentality.
Buckmaster before commented that Mitty is an “art film” for those who don’t want to watch an art film. This is exactly what makes Mitty valuable. It grants accessibility into the strange world of “art” films. The film, though imperfectly, takes the forms of art films and communicates them in a way that resonates with the general public. While most general filmgoers would not be drawn to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life on their own volition, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty may nudge them closer to appreciating the cinematography, slight but poignant narration, and subtly of the film’s message.
The Wall Street Journal’s review argued that what made the film feel dissociated was the blurred line between fantasy and reality, in which one couldn’t tell if Mitty dreamed he jumped into the Arctic or whether he actually did. But this blurring is intentional and structural when one considers the genre of magical realism. Magical realism is characterized by a highly detailed, realistic setting that is interjected with something strange and unbelievable. The laws of nature and physics are set aside for the creation of a new reality brimming with possibilities and interactions between the characters and their physical worlds.
Did Walter Mitty really just jump into the window of a fiery building? Did he actually sweep the woman he loves off of her feet? While some of the visions are more fantastical (i.e., him being a Latin Arctic explorer), some of the visions are woven into scenes that are undeniably real. Because of the setup of Mitty’s visions, one is led to question the things he does in reality. Did he really just fly in a helicopter in Greenland with a drunken pilot and plunge into the sea? Yes, in fact, he did. This is the beauty of Mitty: the film creates a realistic and accessible magical realism. The people in the film do not grow magical pigtails like in Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but they do harness the powers of fantasy to go on improbable adventures, such as trekking through the Himalayas and bribing the Yemen border patrol with cake.
Aristotle wrote that art should recount “probable impossibilities rather than impossible probabilities.” By using an accessible form of magical realism, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty reminds us that life is exciting in its probable impossibilities, the things that can occur that you would never imagine in your dreams, though one would not suggest attempting to outrun an exploding volcano in Iceland.
The beauty of the movie is its simplicity, which criticism can often overlook, creating a film that is simple in its narrative and plot. The film suggests that our minds do not need complicated story lines or movies brimming with action to find wonder. Mitty asks us to stretch our aesthetic concepts in the genres and films we have become accustomed to. Can we still be excited by beautiful shots of nature? Does the subtle spark of potential love still move us? Or we are too glutted on hyper-realistic, over-exaggerated spectacles to relate to the beauty of a quiet mountaintop and the patience of waiting for a snow leopard?
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is like the roll of negatives from O’Connell: picturesque moments strung together to communicate something about life. What makes Mitty work is its well-crafted emotional message. One might be inclined to buy a longboard or a ticket to Iceland immediately after exiting the theater. The film reminds viewers to go, do, be, explore, and hope. As David Carr from The New York Times wrote, “[I]t is a reminder that dreams are meant to be lived.” Many may criticize the film for being overly idealistic and sentimental. But what is wrong with being a little sentimental? When was it necessary to simply accept reality as it is? Most of art and human action has been striving towards creating things as they ought to be. Gritty realism is necessary, sure, to account for the grim occurrences of life, but have we forgotten that there’s some beauty in it all too? Let us not forget that despite all our problems, we’re alive and beautiful things exist.
Sean Penn’s character tells Mitty, while waiting for the illustrious snow leopard, “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” If beauty does not ask for attention, then that assumes that we, as humans, must be paying attention. It’s easy to be distracted. It’s easy to watch the repeatedly gruesome stories on the news and become cynical of life and cynical of people achieving their “dreams.” “Dreams” seems to be a dirty word, an idea you had in college but grew out of like an old sweater. But if we are to take O’Connell’s quotation seriously, then it may be time to look a little hard for beautiful things around us. Maybe things like beauty, hope, and wonder are not givens, but things to be searched for.
The film explores the “quintessence of Life,” a phrase that the enigmatic Sean O’Connell uses to describe his life work, twisting the phrase to be both about the magazine and the lives that we all lead. Are we reaching for the quintessence, or are we rather comfortable to stay where we are, entertained but unhappy and unfulfilled? Could we shake the cynicism out of our bones? Emily Dickinson wrote that “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Maybe hope is also a longboard on the roads of Iceland.
The film whimsically explores what happens when we give beauty, wonder, and love their way and our attention. There is a safety in detachment because it assumes emotional stability, but there is much more to gain by embracing vulnerability. If we would become less detached and more vulnerable toward art, we might find a way to dispel our cynicism and learn to believe again.
The motto for Life magazine in the film is “to see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel: that is the purpose of life.” The Secret Life of Walter Mitty asks each of us if we are ready to adopt this motto for ourselves. It is much easier to critically analyze the film than to take up the dangerous emotional response that the film asks of us. The choice is ours.