NYFF: Fox Unveils Ben Stiller's 'Walter Mitty' — Does It Have The Goods?

20th Century Fox is hitting the New York Film Festival again today after last year’s big success with Life Of Pi, which opened the fest and went on to win four Oscars including Best Director for Ang Lee. Perhaps hoping lightning strikes twice, or maybe just praying for a commercial hit, the studio is holding the World Premiere tonight of its Christmas Day opener The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, which is directed by and stars Ben Stiller. Two and a half months before its release, critics and select press got a look at it earlier Saturday with precisely timed simultaneous screenings in New York and on the Fox lot in L.A. (An L.A.-based publicist told me they actually had a bicoastal countdown to the film’s start to make sure there was no unfair advantage.) And also like Pi, 20th earlier did an elaborate presentation during its April CinemaCcon event in Las Vegas to get exhibitors on board early for the movie they are hoping will be favorably compared to the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump. That move, which included 15 minutes of footage from the then-unfinished movie, also probably heightened blogger awards anticipation. Whether this film, a clear labor of love for Stiller, will become another Oscar player for Fox remains to be seen. With spectacular special effects sequences, great cinematography and a fantastic musical soundtrack to match the pictures, it definitely seems like a favorable box office play for the studio that should have great appeal during the holiday period for audiences who will be able to identify with the theme of a meek daydreamer who finally turns his untapped potential into a spectacular real-life adventure. It’s got humor, warmth, strong emotions and heart — a mix that might not stand up to the stiff 2013 awards competition, or impress some critics, but should click at the box office as long as fans don’t expect a zany Stiller comedy. This is definitely in the comedy/drama wheelhouse, even though it has a supporting turn from SNL and Bridesmaids star Kristen Wiig, who also low-keys it here. A remake in name and concept only of the 1947 Danny Kaye version of James Thurber’s short story, Walter Mitty see Stiller nicely underplaying the Everyman role as the film taps into the changing times and economic and job uncertainty that might encourage people to live vicariously through a fantasy life, rather than the humdrum real thing. It’s even a little Capraesque, which is a good thing to see onscreen during tough times of layoffs and shutdowns.

At CinemaCon, Fox Chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos told me the film definitely had the feel of a special event picture for Fox, and he told exhibitors: “It is a remarkable, remarkable work that runs the whole gamut of emotions. … For those of us who have worked at Fox when some of the most innovative and successful films in history were made, we are proud that Mitty magnificently marries emotional storytelling with groundbreaking visuals like those previous films but stands on its own as a rare and exceptional cinematic experience.” Stiller could find himself competing in the Golden Globes’ Musical or Comedy category, but entrance into the crazy-with-contenders Best Actor Oscar race is probably worthy of a Mitty daydream. Sean Penn, terrific as a globe-trotting photographer in a one-scene cameo near the end, steals the acting honors in the picture, but the most obvious awards play is in the below-the-line area for Stuart Dryburgh’s sweeping cinematography and those fine visual effects. The picture also is exceptionally well-designed, and Stiller shows again that he has real directing chops. How it fares beyond this will depend strongly, I think, on its commercial fate. The problem for any movie this time of year is the shadow of Oscar always lurking in the background and sometimes coloring the views of early opinion-makers. Stiller has made an exceptionally entertaining film and a fine re-invention for Walter Mitty. That should be enough.

  1. Fox needs to put their awards marketing towards THE COUNSELOR . this and Book Thief sound like non-starts.

    1. I agree with this. Mitty is visually pretty rad, but it doesn’t really pack a lot of oomph at the end of the day.

  2. rooting for this film but it faces a potential wild card. audience demos have shifted drastically since the mid 90’s when Forrest Gump was a huge hit. Multi-cultural auds may not go for it. Just look at RUSH; an excellent movie that is struggling. Fingers cross that it will do well.

    Adrian

  3. Pete Hammond you should be ashamed of yourself. This article is a blatant puff piece written to thank the Fox execs who invited you to the special screening. I was a film journalist for 15 years and saw the studios use every tactic to pressure writers for a positive early review. Pete Hammond must be woefully inexperienced to so blatantly roll over and write such a kiss-ass piece. What is Rule number one of journalism, Pete? (Hint: impartiality)

  4. It’s going to be a Razzie of a year. I hear Mitty is solid. Gravity was good. Prisoners was dumb but within reason. And them there was Runner Runner. OMG. Think we got our first nomination in several categories. People, let’s read scripts before we make them.

  5. Marketing an overpriced disaster is obviously tough and only rarely (Scorsese’s Hugo, Lurhmann’s Gatsby) can you pull the pieces together to fool an audience into showing up. Probably Fox thinks that most of the awards season films will have been seen by Christmas so something vaguely family friendly with a sweet-natured trailer can be critic-proof. Show it to critics this early and the bad reviews will be unsurprising by the time it’s released. Once the film is made and made poorly, there’s probably no wrong way to go.

    Does this bolster the concept of the New Yorker curse or merely indicate a tendency on the part of marketers to try to manage flops through early exposure? I.e., if your film doesn’t suck, you don’t need to bring in the journalists beforehand.

  6. must admit the first trailer for this film made my toes curl. not in the good way. I know stiller has had some success and some
    potential but his directing efforts always seem like someone doing an impression of a filmmaker. even when he gets to
    work with dps like john toll

  7. Love Craig Mazin baffled why so many tale TS can’t get their scripts made. Answer: crap like Runner Runner and I mean horrible material takes up the slot. Okay Craig you numnut.

  8. Looks like this years Cloud Atlas (I could say that with more conviction if I’d actually bothered to see that); lots of nice pictures and manufactured sentiment, but Stiller has shown when it comes to this sort of thing he has the depth of a puddle. Fox should put there money on a great actor in Mr. Rush and a fine, compelling story in The Book Thief which can do Kings Speech kind of awards and numbers.

  9. Gore Verbinski developed this script with Steve Conrad and then gave it away on a silver platter to make Lone Ranger instead. Great move.

  10. Sorry Pete, but Unreal has a point: You do seem to be straining to give this film a positive spin. Looks like Fox is going to have to do its best to mitigate Mitty.

    1. I agree – Pete and Mike Fleming both should tone down the editorial comments and stick to reporting. This site’s bread and butter is credibility – you’re spending that when you take a mouthpiece roll, even if it’s genuine. If we wanted opinions we would go to Rotten Tomatoes.

  11. I still clearly remember the great Danny Kaye doing the original, and feel the talented Stiller’s museum night pix qualify him to take a shot at Walter Mitty. However, the publicity on updating and adding the noise that passes for music these days scares me. I’ve seen Hamlet and Othello done in modern dress, and all they did was dishonor Will’s originals. Good luck, Ben, and I hope the ghost of Danny will be pleased with your effort!

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