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.