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The Secret Awards Life of ‘Walter Mitty’

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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