The Sheep of Wall Street
In March 1939, The New Yorker magazine published one of the most concise short stories ever written, James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In fifteen short paragraphs, the satirist Thurber presented his great invention, a hen-pecked husband who spends his life dreaming of adventure. In 1947, Norman McLeod directed a Hollywood film starring Danny Kaye, expanding the Thurber’s material into a classical feature, topping in at 110 minutes. Thurber hated the film, which re-scripted his character study into a typical conservative post-war American gender piece about the smothering nature of motherhood.
The post-war film’s discursive position, that coddled American masculinity made the country weak, was sociologically best articulated by Philip Wylie, whose study Generation of Vipers coined the term, Momism, the insane notion that controlling mothers would produce a generation of sissies susceptible to communist infiltration. Unlike in Thurber’s story, which has no developmental structure—Walter at the beginning and end is merely a dreamer who escapes into fantasy—the film reforms Mitty, allowing him to find his traditional, active masculinity in a thriller plot, not of his imagination, but in his real life, where he saves the love interest from the gangsters who threaten her life.
Ben Stiller’s new film version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a terrific amalgam of Thurber’s story and the Danny Kaye star vehicle. The child of Stiller and Meara, one of the great American comedy teams, Ben is as capable as Kaye was to entertain with his face, voice and body. His film is even longer than Kaye’s was, at 114 minutes, and it also presents a classical character arc for Mitty. It is likely Thurber would have hated the film just as much. And yet, Stiller’s film is so much more thematically interesting, certainly than the Cold War Kaye vehicle, but also I think, even better than Thurber’s story.
The film’s elegant script finds Mitty working at Life magazine in 2000. A corporate hatchet man, Ted Hendricks (played by Adam Scott) arrives at the Time-Life Building to oversee the publication of the final issue of the revered American photojournalism magazine. Whereas Thurber’s story is obsessed with the power of words to describe Mitty’s cinematic imagination (he dreams in Hollywood genres, war films, medical, and courtroom dramas), Stiller’s film is about the nature of photography. The film’s seeming Macguffin is a missing photograph that Life’s star photographer (Sean O’Connell, played by Sean Penn) has sent to the magazine for consideration for the final cover. Having worked from afar with O’Connell as his photo editor for almost two decades, Mitty goes off in search of O’Connell to find the lost image.
Significantly, Mitty begins the film with no image at all. When he tries to send a “wink” to his co-worker, Cheryl Melhoff (played by Kristen Wiig), the eHarmony website fails to register his presence. Walter calls the website’s customer service line, where a kindly representative, Todd Maher (played by Patton Oswalt) tries to help Mitty summon up interesting items about himself to place on his webpage.
At the first turning point of the film, Mitty imagines that a photograph of the revered O’Connell comes to life and beckons him into the image. Uncharacteristically, Walter acts impulsively and hops on a plane to Greenland in pursuit of O’Connell and the photograph. From this point onward, the film’s plot seems to want to present Walter’s experiences as real, as opposed to the fantasies that began the film, to turn Mitty from pathetic to path-breaking. In the funniest fantasy moment from early in the film, while Ted is brutalizing him verbally in an elevator, the pretend Walter stands up for himself and insults Ted’s horrid beard, arguing that only Dumbledore could pull off such ugly hair on his face.
However, I think the film’s imagery allegorizes something very different. Akin to Fight Club, there’s something distinctly unreal about the latter two-thirds of the film, and Walter’s relationship with O’Connell. They’ve never met in person over the entire course of their sixteen year professional relationship. The first trip Walter takes, a flight to Greenland, features a huge jetliner with only two passengers. When Mitty lands in Nuuk, a native Greenlander at the rental car shop gives him a choice of two cars, red or blue. In short, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a film of twos, of doubles, where one object mirrors another. If there’s only one man in Fight Club, split between two forms of masculinity, one actively violent and the other beaten down by corporate capitalism, couldn’t the same be true of Stiller’s film?
At the most allegorical level, the film uses this motif of doubling to engage the relationship between words and images in the cinema. The opening credits feature a beautiful presentation of New York City’s buildings, onto which are written the credits. This motif continues throughout the film, as written text buried in the image comments on Walter’s situation. Most directly, the wall in the lobby of the Time-Life Building features a motto celebrating the magazine’s quest after adventure. Such writing serves as the backdrop of Mitty’s transformation.
The film camera produces beautiful images in dialogue with both the actors’ spoken words and also the written rebus that appear in the background of the film. In my favorite shot in the film, Mitty walks the streets of New York City, with the text of the credits inscribed onto the bricks of the skyscrapers behind him. The moment invokes Paul Strand’s 1915 modernist photograph, “Wall Street” in which a number of businessmen walk in front of the J.P. Morgan Building on Wall Street in downtown Manhattan. Behind the tiny human figures loom the monstrous rectangles of grey granite and black recesses for windows that oddly seem to receive no light. Both Strand and Thurber seem to present a New York City in which no hope is possible.
However, Stiller’s film invokes this text and imagery to do something very different. Once Walter is able to meet his doppleganger, O’Connell, he turns into a functional human being capable of a real relationship with Cheryl. Earlier in the film, Cheryl stumbles upon Walter sitting on a bench outside their place of work. He is wearing odd glasses that completely distort his vision of her, because they are made to allow him to see photographs in minute detail, not life-size people. When Mitty finally meets O’Connell at the peak of a Himalayan mountain, the photographer asks Walter to look through his camera’s telephoto lens, a device with the opposite properties of his glasses: the long lens allows him to experience things far away as intimately connected to him. This time, he sees clearly the reclusive snow leopard that O’Connell has come to capture on film. When Mitty asks O’Connell when he is going to snap the photograph, O’Connell refuses, arguing that sometimes he just likes to experience the world without the camera.
Thus, in a film about photography, Walter’s transformation occurs because no image is produced, just experience. It is not at all clear that O’Connell is anything other than a projected image of Walter’s imagination. The genius of the film is that whatever force is within Walter Mitty—whether we call in inventive fantasy or Sean O’Connell—finally demonstrates to him how to productively intervene in the world. Unlike the cynical James Thurber, Ben Stiller’s film has the power to produce, through words and image, a guide for our own such interventions. It is a beautiful Christmas gift that only the cinema can deliver with such emotional power.
– Walter Metz