The Secret Awards Life of ‘Walter Mitty’

The Secret Awards Life of 'Walter

Ben Stiller’s new film, about a daydreamer forced to take action in the real world, is a case study of the changing movie business: How do you lure audiences and awards voters to a quality picture without an easy marketing hook?

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” distributed by 20th Century Fox, is well made and intelligent. But is that enough to make it a must-see for awards-voters amid a flood of late-year entries and a slew of great holdovers?

For voters, all of the below-the-line work in the film, including the cinematography, is worthy of attention. And in a weaker year, the above-the-line work may have been championed. But Fox will have the same problem wooing voters as they do the public: The film is hard to define.

It’s not a low-budget, personal film, and it’s not a big-scale CGI film, but it’s got elements of both. It’s not a comedy or a tearjerker, but it has elements of both. It’s not a love story or a social commentary, but it’s got both. It’s a daring mix, especially in a world where easy marketing angles are a key factor in whether a film gets greenlit.

And yet “Mitty” landed softly in fourth place on Christmas Day (behind “Anchorman 2” and ahead of “Ronin 47”) and hasn’t seen a lot of movement since.

Most other films that opened Christmas week have at least one scene that stirs animated discussion: “The Wolf of Wall Street” with its Quaaludes binge, “August: Osage County” with the dinner scene, “Lone Survivor” and its shootout, and “Labor Day” with its pie-making. “Mitty” doesn’t have a  scene or sequence that’s going to stir up watercooler debates. And “Mitty” is admirably quirky, but so are “American Hustle” and “Her,” which have received more media attention.

In marketing and in the awards push, all roads lead to Ben Stiller, but even that is tricky. This isn’t the actor from zany comedies like “Something About Mary” and “Meet the Parents.” And it’s not funnyman-turns-serious Stiller; awards voters love an about-face from an established star, but he did that 15 years ago, with the 1998 “Permanent Midnight” and “Your Friends and Neighbors.” As a director, this film is different from his “Zoolander” and “Tropic Thunder.”

Scripted by Steve Conrad based loosely on James Thurber’s short story, “Walter Mitty” has a universal theme: Don’t be afraid of life — seize the moment. The message is well conveyed, but that’s a tough selling point for a feature, when that message has been central to everything from sitcom episodes to commercials (Nike’s “Just do it”).

And the film has a few elements of a big-studio tentpole, such as pop-culture references and product tie-ins. But in an era of four-quadrant tentpoles, it generally defies studio conventions. Down the road, it seems a shoo-in for midnight showings, cult status and positive critical re-evaluations. But in the meantime, “Walter Mitty” has a disadvantage in opening at the end of a bountiful movie year in which a glut of acclaimed works have already overcrowded each category.

As Oscar nomination voting gets under way Friday, the simple truth remains that awards voters need to see it. The problem might be convincing others what exactly they just saw.

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  1. nubwaxer says:

    i can’t stand ben stiller. same with david schwimmer.

  2. Pan says:

    A perfect reason to watch a film on the wide screen. Do not miss this one. James Thurber created a great story and character which has been brought to heartbreaking life and interpreted for modern audiences brilliantly by Ben Stiller.

    Like GROUNDHOG DAY this film will have a deep emotional connection with men. Something that is rare in recent films is threaded though the heart of this movie. The inner life, hopes, goals, dreams, and failures of the modern man. Ben Stiller hits this one out of the park. And it is INCREDIBLY beautiful to watch.

    I sat in the theater next to a man around 50. He was with his wife and two teenage children to my right. On my left was a 16 year old girl her 12 year old brother her dad and her mom. The dad was about 40 something. When the movie ended there was an embarrassing but shy smattering of applause. It was a small audience. Small in number and yet they were moved and felt the need to applaud. I joined in and applauded loudly. I could sense that the man on my right was moved by the film he was sniffling a bit and touching his cheeks with his hands. As I applauded he said “This one really deserves applause.”

    I replied that this was the kind of film that really deserves the big screen. He said yes that was … really something.

    As the credits rolled his wife pulled his sleeve and urged him to leave the theater. He said not yet. Just let me sit for a moment he said. I want to watch the credits. She and her children said we’ll meet you in the lobby and they left. We set together in silence, a common bond between us.

    On my left side I noticed the two teenagers had left the theater and the wife was consoling the husband who seemed very moved. The three of us men, middle aged and past middle-aged, sat in silence and watch the credits. We knew that we had shared something profound. Side by side in a movie theater never having actually seen each others faces.

    As much as it is about anything The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is about the loss of Father. It is about the expectations and the realities of manhood. It is about slaying the dragon and saving the maiden.

    See it for yourself.

  3. Bluewater3 says:

    Going to see it today. Can’t wait!

  4. Kelly says:

    Apparently I saw a different movie than the one some of these folks saw. The movie I saw was magnificent…charming…funny…and beautiful… I loved it.

  5. This film was a real disappointment. There was nothing at stake for Walter – the girl was already open to him from the get-go. And the lost negative (and the lost job) became insignificant once he made the transition from fantasy heroics to real life heroics. Also, why would a famous photographer that he’d never met, credit Walter with such power and influence over his career? And finally, would LIFE use such a mediocre photograph for its final cover? Naaaah didn’t work for me.

    • Izzy says:

      WELLLLLLLLL I’m not one to get back on here and reply/comment to someone’s opinion but since your comment was so ridiculously unintelligent I felt the need. Don’t get me wrong though, believe what you want about the film just know that you didn’t understand it.

      First of all the stakes were not between Walter and the girl (which Kristen Wiig played damn well). They were between Walter Mitty and himself. If it had been about the girl then there would’ve been a more clear path persuading you to believe so but instead the story flushed a clear portrayal of man vs. himself and Man vs. the world. Basically what that means is that “you’re a fucking idiot.”

      Second, I’m not going to even comment on the you’re fantasy statement with real life heroics nonsense. Basically, once again, “you’re a fucking idiot.”

      Third, photographer’s credit the little guys all the time because those are the ones that actually matter. Not the suits trying to make a dollar. As a little guy, turned suit, turned photographer believe you me.

      And last, a mediocre photograph? Dude, are you fucking kidding me? Bite a dick and go watch a Transformers movie if you want to be spoon fed.

      Walter Mitty is a great movie. Not for everyone obviously, and definitely not for people who sit around and critique things with one eye open and their dicks in their hand attempting to defy the laws of impotence.

  6. Brian Hannan says:

    I doubt if Walter Mitty will get any buzz, from the Oscar-minded or the public. It’s just so self-indulgent. A comedy without laughs. Not not misconceived but badly directed and off-kilter. The Ben Stiller stare can only take a picture so far. And with the girlfriend mumbling and staring, it’s just too much staring. The Life background might resonate in the US but elsewhere will fall flat. The worst is the chief executive with the awful beard.
    On another note, are you reconsidering The Counsellor which got generally bad reviews? This was first-rate, subdued (for Ridley Scott) yet tenacious, with wonderful dialogue.

  7. Tulse Luper says:

    Perhaps no one is seeing this movie because the trailer makes it look so, so boring…?

    • M&M says:

      No, the reason why no one seeing it because a lot of people are stuck in this mindset that if a movie doesn’t have explosions, sex, and/or drugs then it’s not interesting.

  8. Alli says:

    I agree. This film is hard to define. As an avid film lover, I find that so unimportant. I thought it was extremely well done and highly enjoyable. I applaud Ben Stiller for thinking outside of the box and taking a chance.

  9. John Freimann says:

    “Based loosely” is so right, A huge disappointment and not because it’s not like the Thurber tale; it’s just poorly done. Also, isn’t it amazing how the barren hills, mountains and rocks of Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan all look alike.

    • Joshua f says:

      Wow, a locations dis? Are you a scout that Ben didn’t hire, or just a guy who enjoys that deep emotional satisfaction of pointing out a “flaw” that 99% of the viewing public doesn’t give a crap about? Either way, kudos on going the extra mile and sharing your insight. You should consider a career as a permanent Yelp reviewer. Pay is about the same as Variety comment pay, but the tableau is sooo much more expansive. Cheers.

  10. Jamie says:

    Maybe if they hadn’t named it “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, they wouldn’t have had such a major problem. Thurber hated the Danny Kaye version and anyone who loves Thurber is already prepped to dislike this new film even if they liked the manic Kaye vehicle.

    Ben Stiller has probably created a perfectly good movie, but by not giving it an original title and character name, the built in bias exists and rightly or wrongly disadvantages the movie.

    • Heeiah says:

      But I disagree-I’ve never seen the original, and despite its perceived fustiness, I’m psyched to see the Ben Still version, precisely cause it seems modern and creative, and it’s got Ben in it, though won’t just be another damn tentpole.

      Way to go, Ben–he’s aspired to quality here, and I bet he delivers it. All the reasons I want to see it.

    • cadavra says:

      Exactly right. Older viewers fear a desecration of the original material, while the kids think it smells “old.” Hence, limited audience. Precisely what happened to the unnecessary PELHAM 123 remake.

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