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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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Hildegard of Bingen: 
		<p>Abbess, artist, author, composer, mystic, pharmacist, poet, preacher, theologian--where to begin describing this remarkable woman?</p>
		<p>Born into a noble family, she was instructed for ten years by the holy woman Blessed Jutta. When Hildegard was 18, she became a Benedictine nun at the Monastery of St. Disibodenberg. Ordered by her confessor to write down the visions that she'd received since the age of three, Hildegard took ten years to write her <em>Scivias</em> (<em>Know the Ways</em>). Pope Eugene III read it and in 1147 encouraged her to continue writing. Her <em>Book of the Merits of Life</em> and <em>Book of Divine Works</em> followed. She wrote over 300 letters to people who sought her advice; she also composed short works on medicine and physiology, and sought advice from contemporaries such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux.</p>
		<p>Hildegard's visions caused her to see humans as "living sparks" of God's love, coming from God as daylight comes from the sun. Sin destroyed the original harmony of creation; Christ's redeeming death and resurrection opened up new possibilities. Virtuous living reduces the estrangement from God and others that sin causes. </p>
		<p>Like all mystics, she saw the harmony of God's creation and the place of women and men in that. This unity was not apparent to many of her contemporaries. </p>
		<p>Hildegard was no stranger to controversy. The monks near her original foundation protested vigorously when she moved her monastery to Bingen, overlooking the Rhine River. She confronted Emperor Frederick Barbarossa for supporting at least three antipopes. Hildegard challenged the Cathars, who rejected the Catholic Church claiming to follow a more pure Christianity.</p>
		<p>Between 1152 and 1162, Hildegard often preached in the Rhineland. Her monastery was placed under interdict because she had permitted the burial of a young man who had been excommunicated. She insisted that he had been reconciled with the Church and had received its sacraments before dying. Hildegard protested bitterly when the local bishop forbade the celebration of or reception of the Eucharist at the Bingen monastery, a sanction that was lifted only a few months before her death. </p>
		<p>In 2012, Hildegard was canonized and named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI.</p>
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