When Twentieth Century Fox gave The New York Film Festival its Ben Stiller Christmas movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” it sent a signal to the industry that the studio had enough confidence in this holiday family entertainment to not only sell it to mainstream audiences –as befits a romantic fantasy that costs well over $100 million–but to critics as well. Upper West Sider Ben Stiller, who produces, directs and stars in the movie, admitted at the October 5 premiere that he was thrilled to finally be a member of the NYFF auteur club.
But showing”The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” at a festival that insists on booking art films that didn’t even score at Cannes, such as James Gray’s “The Immigrant” and Arnaud Desplechin’s’ “Jimmy P.,” may have been a mistake. While the movie certainly played better on Saturday night at Alice Tully Hall, which was packed with cheering cast and crew, the morning press response was decidedly mixed.
Loosely inspired by James Thurber’s iconic short story, which was turned into a Hollywood comedy starring Danny Kaye, this Walter Mitty lives in a version of present-day New York City. He works as a Life Magazine photo archivist, and is processing some old-fashioned 35 mm negatives sent in by intrepid photographer/explorer Sean O’Connell (an excellent Sean Penn). Missing frame 25 is intended to grace the final print cover of Life Magazine, which is finally going online, and boss Adam Scott, in a serious beard, is demanding that he produce the photo.
As Mitty embarks on a quest to find O’Connell, he starts to live the life he had always imagined. “The fantasies in Walter’s head are related to parts of who he could be or wanted to be,” said Stiller at the NYFF press conference, while admitting that indulging in the fantasies without bringing the movie to a halt was his biggest challenge, Basically, they got shorter. “Is it going to be funny or real,” tiller asked himself. “Every movie has its own tone. You don’t know what the tone is until you’ve made it.” One thing was real: Stiller was bobbing in the ocean in five-foot ocean swells.
While the romance with co-worker Kristin Wiig feels especially contrived upon second viewing (Stiller first met Wiig hosting Saturday Night Live), I went along for this ride. Stiller sets up the rules from the start, as Mitty has a habit of zoning out into fantastical reveries accompanied by a rocking soundtrack. (One hilarious bit is a send-up of David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”) The conceit of this fantasy is that this improbable hero eventually fills in the blanks in his empty travel journal in real life, SPOILER ALERT leaping onto a helicopter (a 50-year-old rig from “Hawaii Five-0”) in Greenland as his fantasy of Wiig eggs him on with her rendition of David Bowie’s “Ground Control to Major Tom,” outrunning a volcano in Iceland and climbing to 18,000 feet in Afghanistan. But the resolution of the mystery lies back home with Walter’s mom (Shirley MacLaine, star of one of Stiller’s favorite films, “The Apartment”).
The discrepancy between my unabashed enjoyment of this old-fashioned romantic comedy adventure–which brooks comparison to such sweet Oscar contenders as “Moonstruck,” Broadcast News” and “Up in the Air”– and Team Indiewire’s more downbeat take suggests that the movie will play better to older audiences, perhaps even the Academy. In other words, Stiller has delivered a film that his parents, Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller, could love.
In a competitive awards year, with such movies as “American Hustle,” “The Monuments Men” and maybe “The Wolf of Wall Street” still waiting in the wings, if “Walter Mitty” gets a sound critical drubbing, that could hurt any Oscar chances for director Stiller, screenwriter Steve Conrad, production designer Jeff Mann (who had fun with the Life Magazine images), and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, among others who contributed to this handsome production.
Review round-up and NYFF press conference video are below:
Sometimes daydreams do come true. At least, that’s what the
Goldwyn family must be feeling now that their long-delayed “The Secret Life of
Walter Mitty” update finally exists, smarter and less screwball than previous
attempts at the material have been. After nearly two decades of rewrites and
recasting — during which Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, Mike Myers and Sacha Baron
Cohen were each attached — the role falls to Ben Stiller, who also directs.
Rather than channeling James Thurber’s satirical tone, Stiller plays it mostly
earnest, spinning what feels like a feature-length “Just Do It” ad for restless
middle-aged auds, on whom its reasonably commercial prospects depend.
A lyrical comic fable about releasing the exceptional
qualities trapped within ordinary people, Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of
Walter Mitty expands upon the classic James Thurber short story, updating it to
the age of corporate downsizing and dehumanizing job elimination. Premiering at
the New York Film Festival ahead of Fox’s wide Christmas Day release, the
film’s pleasures may be too minor key and its pace too meandering to conquer
the mainstream. But audiences willing to tune in to its blend of surreal
fantasy, droll comedy and poignancy will be rewarded.
One can’t help but wonder after a while whether Stiller is
really getting off on having his own ego stroked in the guise of making an
inspirational movie about following your bliss. However admirable its life
lessons are, by the time this Walter Mitty encases Stiller in black-and-white
photographic amber on that final Life magazine cover, it’s enough to cast
serious doubt on whatever crumbs of well-meaning sincerity one might have been
willing to grant him in the beginning.
Individual moments have been calculated to foreground the
emotional nature of the material, most notably when Walter imagines Cheryl
singing a gentle rendition of “Space Oddity” to him in Greenland and
providing him with a last-second motivation to kick his adventure into high
gear. Yet even as the sequence manages to obtain an inspiring kick, it also
suffers the fate of an obvious device used too gratuitously, marking the
beginning of a downward spiral. By its end, the movie is lost in a Walter Mitty
fantasy of its own.
It looks like one of those films where the experience of
making it must have been remarkable, but that doesn’t always translate to an
equally amazing experience for the audience. In the case of “Mitty,”
I think the final film is a mixed bag, a movie with some deft, touching details
that also offers up some very pat observations. I felt like I was sitting in a
traffic jam, and while I eventually got where I was going, there were a lot of
starts and stops along the way.
Ben Stiller’s latest directorial endeavor is a love letter
to daydreams, the power of imagination, and how extraordinary fantasies can
help liven up the reality of an everyman.
Unfortunately, this “Mitty” tries too hard, and as a result
his many adventures — both real and imagined — are neither intriguing nor