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.
As my second post of the day, I was hoping I’d have shorter, more concentrated thoughts on this one, but I can’t help it. I loved this movie.
For those of you who are familiar with James Thurber’s short story of the same title (which you can read in full here), don’t expect this to be a full-on adaptation. In fact, what it does is essentially take the idea of Thurber’s story and blow it up into a beautiful, self-affirming film that’s totally worth seeing.
Here’s the basic plot: Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) has worked at Life magazine for 16 years. He does not do anything adventurous or daring or special. He works, he is responsible, and he lives a life he didn’t expect to. Oh, and he also happens to like the new girl at the office (Kristen Wiig) but he can’t get the courage to talk to her. Then, Life staff finds out that they’re about to publish the last issue of the magazine. Walter receives the film from star photographer Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn) but it’s missing the picture Sean wants for Life‘s cover. Walter makes a decision to go after Sean instead of sitting back and that decision sets off the greatest adventure he’s ever had.
Thurber’s story, while short, funny, and excellent all by itself, is incredibly transformed by Stiller’s directing. And there are so many things I liked about this movie that I think it’ll just be easier for me to make a numbered list.
- Treatment of text: From the opening credits, text is placed throughout the film and if you don’t pay attention, you might miss it. When Walter first takes off on the plane, watch for all the phrases – it’s a familiar quotation that pops up throughout the movie and keeps the Life motto in the front of your mind.
- Film style: It’s a beautiful movie. Because a lot of the storyline is based on photography and capturing that moment, it’s just pretty to look at. And again, the opening credits are a testament to how clever the art of the film is. Just watch the colors if you don’t believe me.
- Locations: WOW. From Greenland to Iceland to Afghanistan (obviously not all locations of the film are the actual filming locations), it’s just beautiful. Most of the shots look like something out of National Geographic which, again, makes sense because that’s the whole point of the movie – finding that one shot.
- It’s funny. Like, really funny: There were so many moments I laughed out loud. And not because it was crude or mean. Because it was genuinely and innocently funny. Yes, there’s some language in the PG-rated film, but it’s not used as the humor. One of my favorite moments, for instance, was when the Icelandic/Greenlandic guy on the ship is saying goodbye to Walter and says, “Stay gold, Ponyboy!” For anyone who’s read S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, you know that’s a hilarious use of that line. The same character also mentions seeing Walter “on Sesame Street.” It’s just funny.
- The ending: Which is perfect. Again, funny, sweet, and just good. You can’t complain. Really.
- It makes you believe: One of my all-time favorite movies is It’s a Wonderful Life. That movie, every Christmas, reminds me of how important I am in the world. And it’s not because we need an ego boost. It’s just that sometimes we need to be reminded that our existence is miraculous and beautiful, and that we serve a purpose in the world. There’s a line in the movie Hugo that it reminds me of, when Hugo says: “I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.” What It’s a Wonderful Life tells us is that it’s okay to have a simple life in a small town. It’s okay to not be the adventurous one – you are still important to the world. Walter Mitty tells us that we can be the adventurous ones. We don’t have to live in our own heads all the time, and no matter what we’ve done or failed to do, no matter how old or young, we can go out and still live.
And that’s what I really loved about this movie. Maybe it’s just because I’m at that point in my life where I’m thinking, “So you’ve graduated college and been places. What’s the point of your existence?” But this is the movie where I walked out of the theater and thought, “Yes. I matter. And I can still make a difference. And I can still go on adventures. And I can still live a full life.”
I also want to take this opportunity to applaud Ben Stiller for the least-funny acting I’ve ever seen from him. His performance as Walter is beautifully understated and so incredible, I just can’t get over it. And his choices as a director are excellent. I can honestly say there is not a single thing I didn’t like about this movie – it makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you feel good.
I know it’s not getting great reviews from critics, but I’m not surprised. It’s just a good movie. There’s no real angst, no dystopian universe, no intensely political commentary. It’s just good. And sometimes just a good movie is exactly what we need.
As Sean O’Connell says, “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”