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The Secret Oscar Life of ‘Walter Mitty’

Following its debut at the N.Y. Film Festival, Fox’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” had a gala screening at AFI Fest Wednesday night, followed by a reception at the Roosevelt Hotel. In terms of awards, the film is hard to categorize, which could be a source of vulnerability, but may also prove to be its greatest asset.

Ben Stiller, directing from a script by Steve Conrad, offers personal drama, social-commentary comedy, satire (e.g., a spoof of “Benjamin Button”), and travelog (Iceland and the Himalayas look spectacular) among other flights of filmmaking fantasy, all flavored with quirky humor and pathos. Its genre-jumping sensibility will appeal to young audiences, while its central theme of midlife crisis skews older.

Audiences so far have been split, which can be used to the film’s advantage: The naysayers will make the supporters even more passionate about the film’s virtues. The 2005 “Crash” similarly split audiences, but its fans were so smitten that it ended up with the best-picture prize. “Mitty” is 180 degrees from “Crash,” but the point is: Life is full of surprises, and so is the film — and so are awards voters.

It should be considered in all awards categories, including SAG Ensemble (Shirley MacLaine, Patton Oswalt, Adam Scott, et al.) As a lead actor, Stiller faces the same problem as Ralph Fiennes in the very different “The Invisible Woman”: Both actors have directed themselves to their best performances, but when a person serves double-duty, voters tend to focus on a director’s contribution and underappreciate the acting.

Though reviews have invoked the James Thurber short-short story and the 1947 Danny Kaye movie, neither is considered a sacred classic, so voters in every group should appreciate the film’s backstory, with many years and contributors working hard to conquer the material, but Stiller and team finally pulled it off.

Here’s a possible comparison: In 1990, several Variety staffers went to an industry screening of Paramount’s “Ghost.” The next day, one enthused to me, “It’s going to be huge. It’s got everything: Romance, comedy, suspense, spirituality… Something for everyone.”

In a separate conversation, another co-worker growled, “I hated it! What was it? Is it a romance, a comedy, a suspense film, a supernatural film? It can’t make up its mind.”

In other words, they saw the same film, but one saw its diversity as an asset. “Mitty” may have a similar fate. And for the record, “Ghost” ended up doing very well.

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