Name your favorite Ben Stiller movie.
That Zoolander movie? Classic. That’s one of my favorites.
Ben Stiller is a pretty funny guy. Recently a copy of one of his newer films, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, passed through my hands. I missed the original version but thought I’d give this remake a try. A quick sum-up of the plot for those of you unfamiliar with the original or the remake:
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a quiet guy who has a big imagination and an office job who’s never really been anywhere or done anything. When his job is threatened, he has to take extraordinary measures/lengths to try to save his job, opening him up to the world beyond the corporate world. And there’s a romantic thread too.
What surprised me most about the film was that it took me to a place beyond a romantic comedy and touched me as a person, and as a writer.
I guess to some extent I related to Walter Mitty, this guy working for LIFE magazine in one of the photo departments. I think what made the book stand out, and for me, this film version, were the things Ben Stiller taught me and that’s what I wanted to share with you today.
Warning: If you haven’t seen the film yet, there are spoilers ahead after the jump!
#1. Don’t let others define your worth or the value of your work.
Walter Mitty may have had an office tucked away from the glamour of the publishing hustle and bustle, but he also had an important, if overlooked, job for the magazine. He brings out the best of each photograph sent from adventure travel photojournalist, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn).
When LIFE magazine makes the transition to digital, it looks like a lot of jobs will be cut and the corporate transition manager, Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), makes a point of repeatedly demeaning Walter and his work. This matters because Hendricks is the one handling the downsizing so he really could make sure that Walter loses his job. Although Walter doesn’t stand up to Ted (initially), neither is he insecure about who he is or what he does.
Walter doesn’t define himself or base his worth on how the bullies at the magazine belittled him. What I learned from Walter’s example is to know who you are, be secure in that identity, and revel in it. Walter is a dreamer, he’s got such a big imagination, and so much potential unrealized (at the start of the film) and I fell in love with the character for that reason. Walter is a great guy, other people may just not realize that yet, including fellow co-worker and love interest, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig).
#2 Do the best work you can, even if it comes without recognition or reward.
There’s something to be said for being quietly faithful in your job and just putting your shoulder to the wheel.
When the image sent for the issue’s final cover goes missing, and Walter’s job is threatened, he goes on a global adventure to try to find recluse photojournalist Sean O’Connell. For him, it’s not a question of an unrealistic goal, he’s going to find O’Connell, get the photograph, and save his job. It’s his final gift to the magazine, providing them with the final magazine cover that their star photographer had in mind.
The poignancy of the film I think is that Walter Mitty never has any idea of the impact of his sixteen years of work at LIFE Magazine on the magazine or the photographer, O’Connell. Because Walter is passionate about his work, he’s made an unstated commitment to trying to bring out the best of those negative images that he can to present an image as true to life as the photographer’s original vision. That results in quality work. Nobody seems to recognize that there’s an art behind the scenes of Walter’s job as a negative asset manager at a major publication.
That passion drives Walter to do the work that he loves and do it to the best of his ability. Those images he gets from O’Connell fuel his imagination and that yearning in him to step out of the role of obscure office worker into a adventure globe trekker. But he has to take the first steps out of his comfort zone to get there.
#3 We grow a little on the inside each time we face the unknown.
It is healthy for us to do things (on occasion) that are outside of our comfort zone. In Walter’s adventures he has challenges that test him physically and mentally but Walter, after a bout of inspiration, does them with joy. These challenges force him to grow as a person and also take time to reflect and heal some wounds he’s neglected to deal with.
Walter is a different man when he returns the first time from his travels, and he continues to grow with each new exotic locale that he visits, in search of the elusive O’Connell. In some respects, Walter is a bit like Dorothy Gale. He needed the journey to realize what he had at home all along. I think he also needed the experience to develop confidence. What he didn’t full appreciate was all of the people who recognize his passion and talent and just want him to succeed, which brings me to my next point.
#4 Everybody has someone in their corner, even if we fail to recognize them at the time.
Who does Walter have? I’m so glad you asked!
Walter Mitty has his mother, Edna Mitty (Shirley MacLaine), whom he’s trying to move into a new apartment; the co-workers who are dependent on Walter; heck, even Todd (Patton Oswald) from E-Harmony is rooting for Walter. I love Patton Oswald! All of these people, on some level, propel Walter into becoming the man he knew that he was on the inside. If only he had the courage to try.
It’s concern for his job, and that of his co-workers, which launches him to take that first flight. Todd becomes a sort of POV character for the audience and to a degree, Walter’s sidekick, as Walter’s experiences get crazier and more unbelievable from what the average American may experience. He’s also AWESOME as comic relief.
If you’ve seen the movie already, then you’ll know the impact that Edna Mitty repeatedly has on Walter’s journey. From her advice, her home cooking, and a mother’s love (and some crazy coincidences), she brings a quirky element to the film and saves the day (more than once). Isn’t it nice to know that no matter for far we wander from home, our mother still has our back? I like to think it is.
For Walter Mitty, change is inevitable in the publishing industry, even at his job at LIFE magazine. Just like Walter, we all have a journey we are on and change is going to happen in our life too. But as we see through Walter’s journey, he’s acquired some life lessons that we can apply to help us.
We must be secure in who we are, do our work in humility, without seeking accolades or recompense, push our boundaries to grow and explore new directions and, recognize the people in our corner, rooting for us to succeed.
If we do that, we’ll discover that by not asking for attention, by just pursuing our passions and utilizing our talents to the best of our ability, that in the end, we will make something beautiful.
#5 Be the ghost cat.
For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, I’ll put this term in context, providing a brief set of quotes from a moment in the film:
Sean O’Connell: They call the snow leopard the ghost cat. Never lets itself be seen.
Walter Mitty: Ghost cat.
Sean O’Connell: Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.
Walter Mitty: What was the picture?
Sean O’Connell: Let’s just call it a ghost cat, Walter Mitty.
By the end of the film, Walter’s lost his co-workers, his own job, and he doesn’t really need eHarmony anymore. But he still has family. He also has found O’Connell and discovered some things about himself in the process.
Even though Life Magazine has gone digital, we are left knowing that Walter Mitty is in a better place than he was at the start of the film. He’s going to be fine, more than fine. Walter Mitty is a conqueror, a pursuer of his passions and dreams. He has acquired life skills and experiences that he can take with him wherever he goes and that set him apart from the competition. Walter also finds the recognition that he never sought and people will now know Walter Mitty, not as the globe trekker, but as a man who didn’t ask for attention, who did his work with passion and was quietly faithful in his position.
I’ll leave it to you to decide who the real ghost cat is.