Ben Stiller in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"
Ben Stiller in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"

Ben Stiller is one of the few remaining movie stars--audiences actually turn up to see him. While he does the occasional Noah Baumbach movie, Stiller's a studio animal. He's operating in that narrow band that remains for high-budget mainstream commercial movies aimed at a wide swath of audiences. And he's able to function with relative freedom because of his track record as a comedian (the "Meet the Parents" and "Night at the Museum" series) and producer-writer-director ("Tropic Thunder"). That's a sweet spot indeed.

With 20th Century Fox's $100-million tentpole "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," a far-flung romantic adventure fantasy starring Stiller, Kristin Wiig and Sean Penn, Stiller is trying to hit the bullseye with a sweet holiday movie with artistic ambitions. While "Mitty" may succeed at pleasing a broad band of moviegoers, critics and the Academy are tougher to please. (The movie's September New York Film Festival premiere backfired.) (Here's my review and Richard Corliss in Time.)

Loosely adapted by screenwriter Steve Conrad from James Thurber's 1939 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 (a well-cast 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. 

Ben Stiller in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"
Ben Stiller in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"

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, the fantasy sequences got shorter. "Is it going to be funny or real?" Stiller 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 occasionally feels contrived (Stiller first met Wiig when he was 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 Secret Life of Walter Mitty

In a competitive awards year, with a crowded field and late entries "American Hustle" and "The Wolf of Wall Street" picking up steam, "Mitty"'s best Oscar prospects are in tech categories, especially production designer Jeff Mann (who had fun with the Life Magazine images), and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, among others who contributed to this handsome, well-mounted production. 

Judging from early reaction, this old-fashioned romantic comedy adventure--which brooks comparison to such Oscar heart-tuggers as "Moonstruck," "Broadcast News" and "Up in the Air"-- will play better to older audiences. In other words, Stiller has delivered a film that his Upper West Sider parents Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller could love. His father was able to attend the NYFF premiere, while his mother, who is dealing with medical issues, had to remain at home. 

I interviewed Stiller back in L.A. 

Were you nervous showing it so early?

For me it's never my favorite part of process. The creative part, the making of it, for me is the part I love. To put it out in the world, it's out of your control how people react to it. As long as I've taken the creative process as far as it can go, and had time to live with it and explore it as much as possible, then there's this feeling: 'this is what it should be, what I wanted it to be.' I want everyone to love it, all the time!