NYFF: Stiller's Fantasy Crowdpleaser 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' Divides Critics (VIDEO)

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by Anne Thompson
October 7, 2013 1:33 PM
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Ben Stiller in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"

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: 

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