Cards on the table: I wanted to like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I wanted to like it in the same way that I enjoyed Forrest Gump – perhaps even in the same way that I loved The Truman Show. You see, I have a feeling that Ben Stiller has a “great” movie in him. He reminds me so much of Jim Carrey and Tom Hanks in their younger years. So when I heard that Stiller had passed on making Zoolander 2 in favor of bringing Walter Mitty back to the big-screen, I wondered if this would be his Jim-Carrey-in-The-Truman-Show moment – the moment where he finally suppressed his comedic impulses in favor of reaching for something more universal, more human.
Unfortunately, the core of the film’s problem ultimately stems from the poorly constructed script and its schizophrenic worldview. As anyone who has seen the trailer can clearly see, the film wants to ask questions about our “need” to get out of our own heads and our “need” to take risks in order to live a meaningful life. The problem is, as Walter’s fantasies slowly give way to his “real life” adventures (which are highly fantastical and equally unbelievable), his motivations come across as entirely narcissistic. He has no real desire to explore or experience the world other than as a means of beefing up his anemic online profile that bears brutal witness to his vanilla nature. At the same time, Stiller’s adventurous counterpart – a man who has spent his entire life photographing primal nature and human conflict – tries to give Stiller a photo that captures the very “quintessence of life.” And what is it that this photographer has captured? (Spoiler alert) It is nothing more than a photo of Stiller’s character sitting on the edge of a water fountain as he stares intently at a strip of photo negatives. In other words, even as Stiller is celebrated (and rewarded!) for leaving behind his internal fantasies in favor of living the exotic life, we are subtly chastised for cheering him on because he has forsaken the ordinary life, which is said to be meaningful.
As a Christian, I couldn’t help but notice that this very same schizophrenia seems to be intruding in upon our corporate life as well. Consider, if you will, this book blurb from The Sacred Romance, written (to much acclaim) by John Eldredge and Brent Curtis:
From childhood on, something or Someone has called us on a journey of the heart. It is a journey full of intimacy, adventure, and beauty―but like any fairy tale it is also fraught with more than a little danger. To ignore this whispered call is to become one of the living dead who carry on their lives divorced from their most intimate selves, their heart. The Sacred Romance calls to us in our fondest memories, our greatest loves, our noblest achievements, even our deepest hurts. The reward is worth the risk. God Himself longs for us, if we are but willing . . .
Here, in this blurb, you see all the elements of Walter Mitty: adventure, fairy tales, danger and even the threat of existing as one of the “living dead,” who fail to embrace the adventure. But the problem is: very few of us have the resources to live such a life. Rather, lives such as these are reserved for the privileged few who actually possess the material wealth necessary to chase after these often ego-centric dreams.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty had the chance to say something interesting – perhaps even profound – about the fantasies that are lived out in our minds and about our need for meaning in this life. But because meaning is said to be bound up in nothing more than an adventure that bears witness to the fact that you are interesting, ultimate meaning is reduced to being nothing more than a plaything of the rich and powerful.