It was my son’s night to pick our family film, and of all the superhero, gang-busting, technicolour films he could have chosen, he picked The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Granted, Ben Stiller is on our nine-year-old’s radar as a family actor, particularly for his role in the Night at the Museum franchise. Walter Mitty, however, is not that. It is the indie-styled film of a boring middle manager who cultivates a life of imaginary adventures, but who never takes any risks. Ever.
In the great irony that draws from James Thurber’s original short story in 1939, Walter Mitty (played by Ben Stiller) works at Life magazine. Life’s motto is placed throughout the film, both on the lips of the actors, but also in props and visual dramatics:
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.
This motto is everything that Walter Mitty is not. But it is everything he aspires to be.
When suddenly uprooted by the threat of corporate downsizing, the end of magazine culture, and a missing photo, Walter Mitty embarks on a global comedy of errors. From bar fights and shark wrestling to cliff jumping and a mountaintop soccer scrimmage, Walter is drawn out of himself into a life more troubling and problematic and rich than he could ever have wished for.
It is a brilliant film. The location shoots are gorgeous, the writing is superb, the scenes are laced with cultural echoes, and the imagination shots turn a mid-life crisis love film into a family classic.
There is a further layer of intrigue in the film: the question of Providence. One of the most difficult things about telling a story of happenstance is when the element of Chance is pushed too far and credibility is lost. While I enjoyed watching California slide into the ocean, the sheer number of one-last-chance do-or-die completely-lucky moments in 2012 explode the thin veneer of trust I was willing to place in this apoca-flop. Yet I never question a far greater series of coincidences in Forrest Gump or Big Fish. It is the difference between good storytelling and, well, the end of John Cusack’s career.
In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Lady Luck gambles with the gods. In the Old Testament, God is the unseen Mover behind the geopolitical miracle that is historic Israel. But in the films that do Chance well, the Lady or Lord of Coincidence is unnamed.
In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, however, it asks the question of the Unseen Hand. Walter has to discern a number of clues that are left in his way. The first ones are so obscure and unlikely, that the trail they leave gives the audience a smile. When Walter discovers a thumb—that’s right, a person’s thumb—in Greenland, the storyteller is at the cliff’s edge of credibility (even though there’s only 8 people in Greenland).
What keeps us as an audience from falling over the edge is the question of who left the trail of clues, and how intentional they were in doing so. We wonder whether there is a grand master behind Walter Mitty’s great self-rediscovery–a mentor wise in what it means to seek the purpose of life. It is possible that Walter Mitty’s adventure is neither capital “P” Providence nor Chance, in the truest sense.
As I loved this great surprise of a film, I posted my thoughts on facebook. And I discovered that a number of my fairly limited number of facebook friends liked the film too. Quite a few were actually watching it that day. It caused me to wonder whether Nicolas’ choice was Providential, Coincidental, or if there is a Third Option.
The Third Option in Walter Mitty is the Sensei character, and I won’t reveal what happens with that storyline. But what would the Third Option be for the strange coincidence that a number of friends were watching the same film at various parts of the world at the same time? Is Mark Zuckerberg the grand master of my journey of self-discovery?
Close, but even creepier than that. Regardless of whether my life is really being shaped by Providence, and regardless of what your thoughts are on Chance, an absolute certainty is that my life is being shaped by the Algorithm. Day by day, strengthening with every blog, tweet, profile update, appointment request, and recipe search I perform, the Algorithm that I shape is shaping me. Who creates these happy moments I enjoy as a family, or the great synchronicities I share with friends? The Algorithm, that’s who.