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Film / The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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"To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of life."

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a film that was released on Christmas Day, 2013. Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, it tells the story of Walter Mitty, a simple man with an overactive imagination working at Life Magazine during a transition from print media to online media. He is tasked with prepping a certain picture to use for the cover of the last printed issue of the magazine, but in order to do so, he must hunt down the photographer, following eccentric clues while realizing how real life can be stranger than fiction. Kristen Wiig, Shirley Maclaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn, and Patton Oswalt also star.

The film is loosely inspired by the short story of the same name written by James Thurber in 1939 and previously adapted (just as loosely) as a 1947 film starring Danny Kaye.

This film provides examples of:

  • Arc Words: "The quintessence of life."
  • Artistic License – Geography:
    • You can't get to Afghanistan through Yemen by bus as shown. The only land route would have taken Walter into Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and then Iran.
    • As of right now, you can't fly directly from New York City to Nuuk, Greenland as shown. The only flights that go to Greenland are from Iceland and Denmark, so it is plausible to fly directly from New York City to Copenhagen then to Nuuk. However, there were flights between Baltimore and Greenland for about a year in 2007 and 2008.
    • Stykkishólmur is not right next to Eyjafjallajökull. The map shown is of the Westfjords, north of Stykkishólmur, with both the town and Eyjafjallajökull edited in.
  • Badass Creed: The LIFE magazine motto, which is the page quote.
  • Bittersweet Ending: After all his adventures, Walter is laid off as LIFE Magazine ceases print publication, but he becomes immortalized as the cover of the magazine's final issue. That, plus the fact that he now has one hell of a resume from his adventures means finding a new and more interesting job should not be a problem. It also turns out that Cheryl hasn't reunited with her husband, giving Walter a second chance with her. In fact, he asks her out and she says yes; they hold hands after seeing the final issue of Life and the cover photo as they walk away.
  • Brick Joke: Walter used to work at Papa John's as a teenager, and his mother claims he doesn't like thinking about it because his father died when he was young, and the name of the place would remind Walter of his dad. Walter stops by a Poppa John's in Iceland.
  • Broken Pedestal: Downplayed. The pedestal never really breaks, and he moves on pretty quickly, but Walter is still reasonably frustrated with how recklessly Sean chose to handle negative 25 (which led to Walter accidentally throwing it away), and still makes it a point to say that he's looked up to him for a long time.
  • The Cameo: Sean Penn and Patton Oswalt each appear in one scene (though in both cases, their presence is felt in different ways throughout most of the movie leading up to that one scene).
  • Contrived Coincidence: The amount of things that would have had to happen just when they did for full dramatic effect stretches belief several times.
  • Chekhov's Gun: A wallet. A birthday toy. A Clementine cake. The tiniest items can have key significance at the right moment.
    • A drunk pilot's thumb and ring.
    • A skateboard.
    • A mother's habit of collecting mementos from her son.
    • A piano given by a father to a mother.
    • A friendship with a certain staff from eHarmony.
    • A Papa John's pizza place.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Walt's childhood skateboarding.
  • Comically Small Bribe: Apparently, Afghani warlords can be bribed to provide safe passage through their territory with a single cake. Provided it's a sufficiently delicious cake.
  • Cool, but Inefficient: When Walter needs to get from one Icelandic town to another in a hurry, he resorts to longboarding down the highway. It's a very cool scene to watch, but one wonders why he didn't have the sense to ask the guy who gave him directions for a lift— especially since the guy arrives less than a minute behind him to save him from the volcanic eruption.
  • Diegetic Switch: When Walt isn't feeling up to riding the helicopter with a drunk pilot, he starts daydreaming that Cheryl is playing guitar on the stage at the bar, singing "Space Oddity". Upon exiting the bar, the original version of the song by Bowie plays alongside her singing. When he finally gets the resolve to hop into the helicopter, at the pivotal point in the song, Bowie's version takes over completely.
  • Disappeared Dad: Walter's father died suddenly when he was 17, forcing him to become the primary bread-winner and alter his life course.
  • Drunk Driver: The helicopter pilot, who's already had more than a few by the time Walter meets him, announces he intends to "finish off" a towering beer boot before flying mail to a ship through a storm.
  • Exact Words:
    • New Boss Ted gets Walter to agree that the next time they see each other, Walter will have the missing negative. While Walter tries to adhere to the trope, he ultimately fails.
    • Played with in the phrase "the quintessence of life": Everyone assumes it's a photograph that poetically sums up all that it means to exist. The word "life" in the phrase actually refers to LIFE, the magazine.
  • Foreshadowing: Several of Walter's daydream sequences obliquely foreshadow later events in the movie:
    • The first one we see him have involves him outrunning a gas explosion in a building. In Iceland, he outruns an actual explosion— this time caused by an erupting volcano.
    • Another involves him wooing Cheryl as a heroic explorer of a frozen, rugged landscape. He ends up trekking over frozen, rugged mountain ranges in Afghanistan.
    • He also has one where he gets into a lengthy, elaborate fist-fight with Ted. It's a lot less elaborate, but he does finally confront Ted at the end, with awesome results for Walter.
    • During one of their phone conversations, Todd from eHarmony happens to mention offhandedly that he lives and works in Los Angeles. This comes in handy when Walter is detained at Los Angeles airport and needs someone to vouch for him.
    • It's subtle, but when Walter comes back and visits his mother in her new home and throws away the wallet Sean gave him, she looks into the trash can to see what he threw away.
    • While on the cargo ship, the sailor gives Walt a piece of cake that Sean had left behind, and Walt notes that it's the exact same kind his mother likes to bake. We later find out that Sean had actually visited Walt's mother in person.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Walter is a hard working, financially responsible adult caring for his aging mother. His sister Odessa is an Adult Child who despite being in her late 30s/early 40s has no real career and is a hopeless mooch and generally immature. Her idea of a perfect birthday present for her 42 year old brother is a Stretch Armstrong toy like the one they had as kids.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: Walter's budget shows that, among other things, he paid the fine his sister incurred for missing jury duty. Similarly, when Walter checks his email at the end of the film and sees the message from Cheryl's son, we briefly see that his inbox also contains a party invitation from his old co-worker Hernando as well as messages from the helicopter pilot, the fisherman he met in Greenland, and Todd from eHarmony.
  • Genre-Busting: The Other Wiki refers to it as "an American romantic adventure fantasy comedy-drama film". And it's sort of a feel-good inspirational film, too.
  • Genre Savvy: Cheryl mentions that in mystery stories, all the clues will eventually add up and the one odd clue will be something that was right in front of your face the whole time. She's right.
  • The Ghost: Sean O'Connell, the renowned, globe-trotting photographer, is only seen in a photograph, but his presence is mentioned throughout the movie. Walter gets a brief glimpse of him flying by atop a biplane near a volcano, but that's it. Until he comes upon him somewhere in the Himalayas, patiently camped on a rock, waiting for a snow leopard.
  • Good Old Ways: Sean embodies the best, coolest qualities of Old Media. New Media's worst qualities are represented by tools like Ted, while its best are represented by Todd and the other friends Walter makes around the world.
  • Graceful in Their Element: The helicopter pilot in Greenland is so sloshed he can barely make it out of the pub, but once he's in the pilot seat, he and Walter make it to the ship without incident. Well, other than Walter jumping towards the wrong boat out of the helicopter, but that's his fault.
  • Hate Sink: Ted, the liquidation manager who is clearly going to fire Walter without ever realizing how important his work is, is still just there for the audience to despise. The real antagonist is Walter's boring life, which is so devoid of adventure that he keeps fleeing into daydreams.
  • The Illegible: Even at its clearest, Sean O'Connell's handwriting involves apparently random capitalisation, while his shooting notes are almost indecipherable. This considerably delays Walter's attempts to find him, as well as obfuscating the true meaning of negative #25.
  • Indulgent Fantasy Segue: These dominate the first third of the movie, and are the only thing in common between the movie and the original story.
  • Ironic Echo: "Put it on a plaque. Hang it at your next job". It's first said by Ted to the eponymous character as he is firing him for failing to find the missing negative 25. This line is repeated by Walter to Ted after he finally located the negative 25 and is giving him a "The Reason You Suck" Speech for his mistreatment of Life magazine workers.
  • It Was with You All Along: The missing photo from the reel that kicks off Walter's life-changing journey? It's tucked into the wallet Sean mails along as a personal gift to Walter. He throws the wallet away before he finds out where the negative is. Where is it then? It's with Walter's mom, who keeps all her son's old stuff as mementos and later gives it back to him.
  • Jerkass: Ted Hendricks makes a point of bullying Walter pretty much from when he first shows up, and is basically a vacuous and egotistical corporate tool.
    • A very minor one, but when Walter is riding in a cab, he imagines himself on an episode of Conan playing on the onboard TV. When he politely asks the driver to switch it off, said driver rudely replies that “it stays on”. Walter decides to walk the rest of the way.
  • Leno Device: A variation: when Walter thinks that Cheryl has a husband, he watches an episode of Conan playing on the TV in the taxi drive back home, and when he suddenly appears as the special guest on the show, the audience knows that he's lapsing back into zoning out.
  • The Load: Walter's sister, the "performance artist," seems to be more than a little bit useless at helping take care of their mother.
  • MacGuffin: Negative 25. Walt travels across the world to find the damned thing. Subverted, since we eventually see what the photo is.
  • Mean Boss: Ted Hendricks and his ilk are somewhere between this and Pointy-Haired Boss. They are needlessly callous, ignorant of specifics of the industry, and generally just empty, replaceable suits using people for whatever they can get out of them.
  • Misplaced Wildlife: The Threatening Shark that attacks Walter in the water near Greenland appears to be a Great White, but that species is only found in warmer waters. The geographically accurate species would be the similar-sized but less familiar-looking Greenland shark.
  • Missed Him by That Much: Sean always seems to be just right ahead of Walter, having left a place just before Walter arrives. Conversely, it seems Sean made a point of hovering near Walter in the weeks before his most recent trip abroad, without Walter even knowing.
  • Mr. Imagination: Walter has a habit of spacing out and having elaborate daydreams, often involving romancing Cheryl or beating up/humiliating Ted. Once he starts going on an actual adventure, his daydreams become less frequent.
  • New Media Are Evil: Zig-Zagged. In general, the film treats LIFE Magazine's transition to online media as a bad thing, costing people their jobs and giving the reins of something sacred to many over to people portrayed as rather soulless. However, others such as Todd from eHarmony are shown to be decent, kind-hearted people.
  • Noodle Incident: Sean never reveals how or why he got shot. Although, it's possible it might have been from his first meeting with the Afghan warlords.
  • Obvious Stunt Double: There are quite a few shots during Walter's longboard ride where you can only see him from behind or up to his shoulders.
  • Painting the Medium:
    • When Walter is being security searched after traveling to Ungoverned Afghanistan, the film shows an aggressive pat down (and resulting fight and arrest) as if the viewer were looking at the scene through an x-ray screening machine.
    • Also, once Walter starts using his old travel journal, his writings appear blown up large across the screen. When altitude sickness sets in, the letters start drifting away in the wind.
    • The LIFE magazine motto appears over various parts of the scenery as Walter is travelling to Greenland.
    • And when Walter gets a text from Hernando towards the end of his trip in Iceland, the message appears superimposed on a mountain in the background.
  • Poor Communication Kills:
    • The entire plot is kicked off because Sean slipped negative 25 into the wallet he gifted to Walter rather than include it with the other negatives. He assumed Walter would understand the vague riddle he included with his message telling him where negative 25 was. This oversight is directly responsible for Walter losing his job.
    • The helicopter pilot tells Walter to jump into "the boat". He meant the small pontoon boat that was sent out to pick him up. Since it never entered Walter's field of vision, he assumes the pilot meant the big ship, even though it appears to be (and is) too far away.
  • Pop-Up Texting: Text relevant to the scene often appears in the background. One time Walter gets a text from a coworker and it appears carved on the mountainside behind him.
  • Product Placement: Of an extreme magnitude. Papa John's and eHarmony got their own subplots, the latter of which took up the first scene in the movie, and the main plot is about the magazine LIFE. McDonald's, Cinnabon, Google, Instagram and Facebook also get name-checked. And a brand you don't see often: Air Greenland!
  • The Real Heroes: Sean's final cover photo for LIFE, his "quintessence," is revealed to be a picture of Walter looking at negatives, dedicated to all the unseen workers that made the magazine possible.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Walter delivers a calm one to Ted when delivering negative #25 to him, basically pointing out that while his job may involve large-scale downsizing of businesses and firing of employees, he doesn't have to be such a dick about it.
  • Ridiculously Average Guy: The best way to describe Walter at the beginning of the movie is, well, bland. That is, until by the end of his journey, Todd calls Walter "a replica of Indiana Jones who decided to be the lead singer of The Strokes."
  • Scenery Porn: Parts of the movie take place in both Iceland and Greenland, so this is a given. Hell, the trailers themselves gave off this vibe. We later get some scenes of Afghanistan and the Himalayas.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: The movie itself isn't really this, since it's more about Walter searching for and finding more excitement and meaning in his life, but the search for Negative 25 becomes this when Walter learns from Sean that it was in the wallet that Sean gave him the whole time.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Sean O'Connell only gets two scenes worth of screentime, but he plays a huge role in the larger plot with Negative #25.
  • Super Cell Reception: No matter where he goes, as high and remote as the Himalayas, Walt is always receiving phone calls from Todd on his flip-phone with perfect clarity. Even after the thing was in the Atlantic Ocean! note  But those roaming charges are gonna suuuuuuck.
  • Threatening Shark: When Walter jumps into the water from a helicopter, he gets attacked by a hungry shark.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Walter goes from a mild-mannered employee of LIFE magazine with an overactive imagination to an actual globetrotting adventurer. Todd even states that while he originally just envisioned him as an ordinary office drone, after listening to all of his adventures he now sees Walter as an Indiana Jones-like figure.
  • Truth in Television: LIFE Magazine did in fact switch to an online format in 2009. The website transitioned to a photo-only section of TIME Magazine's website in 2012, while special photographic releases (usually about Jesus, English royalty, or year end best-of lists) appear in supermarkets to this day.
  • The Unpronounceable: Walter really struggles to pronounce the name Eyjafjallajökull (a real volcano in Iceland, most famous for its sudden eruption in 2010 that disrupted air travel in Europe).
  • Voice with an Internet Connection: Todd, from eHarmony. Until he meets Walter at LAX and buys him a Cinnabon.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: After Sean tells Walter that the film negative was in the wallet - only vaguely alluded to in the accompanying note - Walter actually points out to his idol what irresponsible treatment that was for such an important item. To his credit, Sean quickly admits the point and they move on. On Walter's end, when he admits he threw away the wallet containing the film negative, Sean bluntly states that his feelings are hurt, and rightfully questions why Walter would throw it away if he really loved it.
  • White Collar Worker: While working in a somewhat technical field (managing film negatives), Walter's job squarely fits in this role. He certainly lives the private life of one.
  • The World Is Just Awesome: Downhill skateboarding in Iceland, just miles from an active volcano; jumping from a helicopter into freezing, shark-infested waters; seeing a rare snow leopard peek out from a ridge and bare its teeth. Yeah, the world is awesome.
    Sean O'Connell: "Sometimes I just like to watch... without the lens."


Video Example(s):


Testing the Limits

Walter has a habit of spacing out and having elaborate daydreams, often involving romancing Cheryl.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (5 votes)

Example of:

Main / MrImagination

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