The Purpose of (The Secret) Life
Every year, my film-nerd husband, Daryl, painstakingly crafts a list of his five favorite movies. Each movie gets weighed against the others and the list is unceremoniously published and updated on his Facebook wall several times throughout the year. Usually, it is locked in by early January and elicits comments from the friend network privy to its existence. In an unexpected twist, his 2013 list changed two nights ago and now includes The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, released in December but screened by the Smiths in February.
It’s not as though Daryl’s picks mirror or even come close to reflecting the opinions of professional film critics. His grid for critiquing a movie consists primarily of one criterion: enjoyment. That’s something we have in common. We’re film hedonists. We won’t watch movies unless we’re actually interested in them. If they’re in any way unpleasant to us, either thematically or stylistically, we’ll turn them off or walk out of the theater. We walked out of Flight. We won’t touch The Wolf of Wall Street with a ten foot pole. We saw all of the 2012 films nominated for Best Picture Oscars, but only one of this season’s (Gravity). So, our opinion of Walter Mitty comes purely from our own enjoyment of the film, not some sense of deference to the opinions of professional critics.
This is the official movie description: “A day-dreamer escapes his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of fantasies filled with heroism, romance and action. When his job along with that of his co-worker are threatened, he takes action in the real world embarking on a global journey that turns into an adventure more extraordinary than anything he could have ever imagined.”
Walter Mitty uses the fictional motto of Life magazine, which is facing the demise of its print editions, as the backbone of the plot: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to; to see behind walls; to draw closer; to find each other; and to feel. That is the purpose of Life.” The title character (Ben Stiller), who has been a negative asset manager at the magazine for 16 years, is facing the end of his career there and the end of his partnership with the elusive photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). His seemingly “anonymous life” is punctuated by elaborate daydreams in which Mitty lives outside of his mundane reality.
As the movie progresses, the daydreams give way to a reality that is adventurous yet grounded. He realizes that the newly noteworthy aspects of his life don’t erase the hard realities about it. He still needs to go home and to bravely decide to take hold of the things he really wants and let go of things that have been holding him back. Sounds a lot like your life and mine, doesn’t it?
As the credits at the end of Walter Mitty rolled, we lingered in the theater, struggling to fully express our enjoyment because it is utterly profound. And it’s not as though the movie was so incredibly deep in meaning that it eludes exposition. But maybe Walter Mitty, which is visually stunning and dialogically sparse at times, is great because it invites each of us to consider the ways in which we haven’t been embracing our life’s purpose and get back on the path of self-actualization.
For the Christ follower, I think Walter Mitty serves to inspire us to grab hold of our purpose in life, as individuals and as the church, and to be willing to take risks in the pursuit of God who has called us. We might even theologically recalibrate Life magazine’s (fictional) motto so that it reflects our Christ-given mission: “To see [and love] the world, things dangerous to come to; to see [love] behind walls; to draw closer [to God]; to find [serve] each other; and to feel [with God’s heart]. That is the purpose of Life.”