The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is Travel Propaganda at Its Worst

IT ISN’T RIGHT TO SAY Ben Stiller has created a love letter to ambitious travellers everywhere with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, though he obviously tried very hard to do that. The nearly-two-hour-long kaleidoscope of Central Asian and Arctic Island postcards seems hand-stitched for a modern travel community whose members’ ambitions soar miles over how much time they’re allowed off work, and indeed has impressed many young wanderlusty travellers who now want to leap onto helicopters, grow thick beards and discover that the girl they have a crush on isn’t actually married and waited for them the whole time they were gone.

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Let’s establish something off the bat here: I get that this film is fantasy, but it’s lousy fantasy, and plenty misguided. (RE: spoilers: in spite of the fact that the trailer basically gives the entire movie away, I’ll keep this safe for those who haven’t seen it, though also suggest that, if you’re keen to watch it, instead of paying 10 bucks or whatever, search the Internet for the copy on Filenuke awkwardly watermarked “PROPERTY OF ELLEN DEGENERES”.)

From a traveller’s perspective, the problem is this: that the film promotes an impossibly mawkish travel style that serves as a method to becoming someone better than who you already are.

Not to sound like a dick, but travel will not change the essence of your life. Travel doesn’t change you from a pubescent Woody Allen into the Old Spice Dude in a week just because you grew a fucking beard. (Believe me, I tried.) The myth that emotional enlightenment can befall anyone who experiences travel qua travel, as in simply the act of walking around in an unknown place for a very long time, meeting foreigners who speak no English and connecting on some muted spiritual plane, will not turn you into a different person. When Mitty returns from an adventure, his old friend looks him over and asks, “Why do you look… rugged?”

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Travel will help you learn things, sure. It’s fun, it’s different. It forces you to examine yourself through the lens of a foreign Other, and that’s always useful perspective. But you don’t stop wearing ties and remember how to skateboard and jump off helicopters and shit like Ben Stiller does in the span of 20 minutes of the movie. It certainly does not, in and of itself, make you “rugged”.

Even barring Mitty’s obvious fantastical lessons, it fails to mention that, for better or worse, you will always be stuck as yourself. Travel propaganda, like all menacing body-image ad campaigns against which feminists raise pitchforks, needs to stop influencing people into the saccharine fallacy that you can change your entire personality as easily as buying a plane ticket. But they won’t. Because that’s how plane tickets are sold.

During the first half of the film, I found Mitty incredibly endearing–we all indulge in heroic mental escapades, picture ourselves as wittier or smarter than we often publicly are. But Stiller totally ditches that character, along with the audience, by the film’s end. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by denouncing how Mitty ends up a confident badass. He’s simply a different person.

Too often we hear stories of listless young North Americans who travel to Europe or East Asia for a few months, a year, going to teach English or “searching for oneself”, looking for ruggedness, only to come back drably unchanged: I looked for myself, but I didn’t find him. 

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3 comments

  1. I think the key word you are looking for is ‘fiction’. My expectation would have been different had the title read ‘the documentary of Walter Mitty’. Perhaps it also highlights the difference between an idealist and a realist – they certainly have different takes on life. Travelling has a way of opening your mind, your perspective and can certainly affect change in your life. Every time I travel I come away with a mini or super metamorphosis. Agreed the movie is over the top, but in principle I love the idea that people can change. Everyday I see those who are brave enough to allow change and those who succumb to the comfort of the familiar. I love transformation in large and small dosage. Thanks for the post!

  2. I went home after being away 2 years and my friends were surprised that I wasn’t as much of a penny pincher as I used to be. What a transformation :/

  3. I have yet to see the movie but what you said about it made me that much more excited to go out & see it.

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