The first thing I had to do after laughing through, weeping over, and reveling in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was grab two amazing songs off the soundtrack to listen to over and over again, to recapture the walking-on-air feeling the movie left me with.
Those songs are "Step Out" by Swedish folk-pop singer José González and "Dirty Paws" by indie Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men. The songs help buoy the movie with a sense of the fairy tale, but also with a very modern ache for something more than what reality is offering.
Oh my god, I love this movie. You know, in a way that makes me wanna cry over its bittersweetly pragmatic approach to dealing with that ache for something more.
This bears little resemblance to the James Thurber short story or the 1947 film. Ben Stiller's Walter Mitty is not an ineffectual, henpecked doofus. He's been doing quite a responsible job extremely well for a decade and a half, as photo manager for Life magazine, and the only one able to deal with Indiana Jones-esque photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn). But now a valuable O'Connell negative has gone missing, and Walter is pushed into what becomes the sort of adventure he often daydreams about.
There is wonderfully funny, downright thrilling stuff in Walter's daydreams, ridiculously preposterous and quixotic stuff. The best of it is the fantasy superhero sequence in which Walter battles his new boss (Adam Scott) through the streets of midtown Manhattan.
But as fantastic as the daydreamy sequences are, even better are the real adventures that gentle Walter has on his quest. Walter's astonishment after one amazing event bursts out as a half-horrified, half-delighted, "Oh my god, that really happened!" Stiller-the-director works glory without needing to resort to fantasy: Later, when Walter skateboards his way through the hills of rural Iceland, the palpable authenticity of such a physical feat is what makes it so electrifying.
Yes, Iceland. Walter's journey is a globe-hopping one, and it is fraught with mundane practicalities. Amid his great adventure, Walter is counting his pennies. Daydreaming is cheaper! Though not as much fun.
Actually heartbreaking, though, is the uncommented-upon integrity that is driving Walter. That new boss? He's come in to shut down Life magazine, and Walter is about to lose the job that he is now taking his life in his hands to complete. He could have just let the missing negative go. What difference would it make, in the long run, or even in the short term?
The film makes no bones about Life's fate. There is no prospect that it will be saved at the last minute. (The real magazine ceased publication as a standalone monthly back in 2000.) It's clear, then, that as much as Walter would like to impress his pretty coworker (Kristen Wiig) with his derring-do, the lengths he goes to here in pursuit of that negative are about maintaining his own soul as his world is falling apart. Will he be downsized out of existence? Or will he endure?
And that may be the most bittersweet thing about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty — the smallness of its expectations for its hero. Thank goodness it goes about pushing him toward a good end in a way that is as cheery and as airy as it is. I'm not sure I could bear it otherwise.