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ON FAITH & MEDIA View Comments

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

By
John Mulderig
Source: Catholic News Service


Ben Stiller and Sean Penn star in a scene from the movie "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (Fox) receives its title, the name of its main character and his principal attribute—a tendency to engage in extravagant daydreams—from a classic 1939 short story by humorist James Thurber. But there the similarities pretty much end.

This is the second time Thurber's wry yarn—itself too brief, perhaps, to be adapted for the screen as anything but a short film—has been made into a feature that retains little resemblance to its source material. In 1947, Thurber's work was given the golden-age Hollywood treatment by director Norman Z. McLeod—and emerged as a song-and-dance vehicle for Danny Kaye.

Turning to the new version, helmed by and starring Ben Stiller, it's hard to say what we have. This strange blend of comedy, drama and travelogue is, by turns, claustrophobic and sprawling, puerile and sweetly emotional. Early scenes showcase humor about awkward workplace situations and executive bullies; later ones present a serious study in self-realization.

At least the outline of the plot is fairly easily sketched: Soft-spoken, office-bound photo editor Walter Mitty (Stiller) takes great pride in his work for a fictionalized version of Life magazine, a publication whose credo, inscribed on a lobby wall, he has learned by heart. But otherwise his existence is so mundane that he frequently escapes into fantasies. These often revolve around his imaginary romance with Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), the fetching co-worker for whom he secretly pines.

When a crucial negative sent in from the field by Life's leading photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) goes missing, Walter is facing unemployment unless he can recover it. Thus begins a series of globetrotting expeditions that will transform Walter's delusions of grand adventure into reality.

One of the movie's most enjoyable subplots charts Walter's interaction with recent divorcee Cheryl's teen son, Rich (Marcus Antturi). A former skateboarding whiz, Walter gains Rich's attention and respect by giving him skating tips, and later brings him back an appropriate memento from one of his far-flung journeys. When circumstances suggest a possible reconciliation between Cheryl and her ex, moreover, Walter respectfully steps back from his timid wooing of her.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum lies Walter's caricatured relationship with Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott). This locker-room bully of an executive has no patience for his easily abashed subordinate's woolgathering. Yet he holds Walter's professional future in his callous hands. In fact, Ted is such an irksome overgrown adolescent that Walter imagines various forms of revenge against him ranging from a crushing insult to a violent beating.

To the degree that the unstable proceedings have a moral core, it can be found in Sean. Mellow, weather-beaten, appreciative of nature and of Walter's steady, self-effacing work behind the scenes, Sean is part New Age guru, part dispenser of social commentary on behalf of the unsung 99 percent.

Indeed, the satisfaction viewers derive from this shape-shifting movie—which, although not suitable for teens, involves relatively little that would be problematic for adults—will depend in large part on how much they share Walter's admiration for Sean.

Those who don't can always curl up at home for a profitable half hour or so reading Thurber's masterwork. It's a comic gem that, in all but name, has yet to be set against the backdrop of the silver screen.

The film contains brief but harsh violence, at least one use of profanity and a few crude and crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG—parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

*****
John Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.



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Andrew Dung-Lac and Companions: Andrew Dung-Lac was one of 117 people martyred in Vietnam between 1820 and 1862. Members of this group were beatified on four different occasions between 1900 and 1951. All were canonized by St. John Paul II. 
<p>Christianity came to Vietnam (then three separate kingdoms) through the Portuguese. Jesuits opened the first permanent mission at Da Nang in 1615. They ministered to Japanese Catholics who had been driven from Japan. </p><p>The king of one of the kingdoms banned all foreign missionaries and tried to make all Vietnamese deny their faith by trampling on a crucifix. Like the priest-holes in Ireland during English persecution, many hiding places were offered in homes of the faithful. </p><p>Severe persecutions were again launched three times in the 19th century. During the six decades after 1820, between 100,000 and 300,000 Catholics were killed or subjected to great hardship. Foreign missionaries martyred in the first wave included priests of the Paris Mission Society, and Spanish Dominican priests and tertiaries. </p><p>Persecution broke out again in 1847 when the emperor suspected foreign missionaries and Vietnamese Christians of sympathizing with a rebellion led by of one of his sons. </p><p>The last of the martyrs were 17 laypersons, one of them a 9-year-old, executed in 1862. That year a treaty with France guaranteed religious freedom to Catholics, but it did not stop all persecution. </p><p>By 1954 there were over a million and a half Catholics—about seven percent of the population—in the north. Buddhists represented about 60 percent. Persistent persecution forced some 670,000 Catholics to abandon lands, homes and possessions and flee to the south. In 1964, there were still 833,000 Catholics in the north, but many were in prison. In the south, Catholics were enjoying the first decade of religious freedom in centuries, their numbers swelled by refugees. </p><p>During the Vietnamese war, Catholics again suffered in the north, and again moved to the south in great numbers. Now the whole country is under Communist rule.</p> American Catholic Blog To replace our sins with virtues may seem like a daunting task, but fortunately we can follow the example of the saints who have 
successfully defeated these sins in their lifetimes. They provide us with a way forward so that we, too, can live holy, virtuous lives.

 
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