NYFF: Ben Stiller’s ‘Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ realizes a fantasy


NEW YORK -- Can “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” turn its dreams into reality?

That fraught question about the Ben Stiller fantasy picture saw the first hints of an answer on Saturday at the New York Film Festival, where the pricey Christmas release had its world premiere.

“I want to thank the Film Society of Lincoln Center for having the courage to show a Ben Stiller movie,” the director quipped as he took the stage before the Saturday night debut at the festival’s upscale Alice Tully Hall. “I grew up 20 blocks away. And thanks to you, I’m finally allowed inside the building.”


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The movie--a $90 million gamble for 20th Century Fox--arrived here after a whopping 19-year development process led by producer John Goldwyn that included at least five directors, four lead actors, three studios and one lawsuit before settling on the current version, written by “The Pursuit of Happyness” scribe Steve Conrad and co-starring Kristen Wiig.

Nominally a remake of the 1947 Danny Kaye comedy, the new “Mitty” more closely harks back to James Thurber’s 1939 New Yorker short story in following a repressed man who compensates for his dreary existence with reveries about globe-trotting adventures.

Conrad’s screenplay is set in the modern world and, though it involves similar flights of fancy to the Kaye film, focuses on its title character’s romantic travails (chiefly via his pining for a co-worker, played by Wiig), his struggles as a photo staffer at a declining Life magazine, and a real-life trek around the globe to find a lost image from a mysterious photographer (Sean Penn, in a scene-stealing cameo).

The 1947 film was largely a series of comedy vignettes for Kaye, near the height of his popularity at the time, while this film looks to tell a more cohesive dramatic story with comedy sprinkled in.

And unlike Kaye’s intrinsically nebbishy Mitty, the new version is concerned with how a man who once seemed to have the world at his feet was thrown off track.

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“I wanted it to pick up where Thurber left off,” Conrad said in an interview with The Times. “This is a movie that looks at something I think a lot of us feel: an obligation to the promise of our talent and the frustration at not being able to develop it.”

Before Conrad, other writers couldn’t seem to find a way to modernize Norman McLeod’s 1947 movie and its postwar frustrations.

Stiller was initially set only to star before he read Conrad’s script and realized there was a different way in -- and that he should make a bid to direct it.

“There was something about what Ben wrote around that first meeting with Steve — he had these beautiful, articulate descriptions in the margins of the draft — that made me knew we finally had it,” Goldwyn, whose grandfather Samuel Goldwyn produced the 1947 film, said in an interview.

Stiller said what resonated for him was the script’s deft commentary on modern life.

Noting that, as a director, he took his cue from intimate stories such as Billy Wilder’s 1960 classic “The Apartment,” also about an office schlep, Stiller said the new “Mitty” was about “this world transforming from analog to digital and what gets left behind with all that.

“Even in the pace of a movie, we wanted to honor that,” he told reporters earlier in the day. adding, “We wanted to create a world that was real but in its own world a little bit.”

That blend — put another way, it’s the mix of comedy A-listers and big effects with a more delicate emo vibe -- seemed to divide audiences on Saturday.

Snarky tweets from a number of press-screening attendees earlier in the day were soon followed by adulation that night at the public debut. The split reaction suggested a movie with an uphill climb on the awards front but a somewhat easier time on the commercial one, thanks to its shiny effects and moments of quiet human comedy. It is a story of regret and redemption, which has played particularly well of late with older audiences, who turned films such as “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” into hits.

Still, the studio will be in the position of retailing a $90-million movie to a broad mainstream audience that historically is less amenable to slow pacing and meditative elements, especially over the holidays.

Conrad noted that he believed there were plenty of precedents for the success of a film like this. “To me, in that regard this is no different from ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles,’ ” he said, referencing the John Hughes staple, “which is a movie my family and I think a lot of families watch every year around the holidays.”

In one sense, Fox has already achieved something other studios couldn’t just by reaching the finish line. Previous iterations with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and Ron Howard all failed to gain traction, as did studios DreamWorks, Paramount and New Line, which all attempted to make the movie before Fox came on board approximately seven years ago. New Line and Goldwyn even got into a legal tussle over it.

In his pre-screening remarks, Stiller alluded to the long road.

“A lot of people think studios are bad and these faceless greedy corporations. And they are. But there also people there who run them,” he said. “The people at the studio decided to take a chance on this movie.”


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Trailer for Ben Stiller’s award-season hopeful ‘Mitty’ debuts

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a $90 million gamble for 20th Century Fox--arrived