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

October 06, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik
  • Kristen Wiig and Ben Stiller in Stiller's new take on the James thurber story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."
Kristen Wiig and Ben Stiller in Stiller's new take on the James thurber…

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. 

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