NYFF51 Spotlight: The Aesthetic Breakthrough of Ben Stiller’s “Walter Mitty”

Posted by Erik Luers on 8.30.2013


Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

All good things come to those who wait. It's been five years since Ben Stiller, the world famous funnyman known for such blockbuster franchises as Night at the Museum and Meet the Parents, directed a feature length film. To be exact, it was the summer of 2008 when Tropic Thunder opened nationwide to big box office, critical acclaim, and even a few high profile awards (co-star Robert Downey, Jr. received an Oscar nomination for his memorable performance). The director of cult gems as wide ranging as Zoolander, The Cable Guy and Reality Bites, Stiller's newly helmed project, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, will be making its World Premiere as the Centerpiece selection in the Main Slate of the 51st New York Film Festival.

Based on a short story by James Thurber first published in The New Yorker (which prompted a 1947 film adaptation starring Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo), Stiller's film marches straight to the source of its middle-aged lead character's inspiration: his internal thought. The trailer released by 20th Century Fox to promote the film is almost entirely wordless, relying on breathtaking images underlined by the melancholic track "Dirty Paws" by Of Monsters and Men. In an interview with FilmLinc Daily earlier this month, Stiller noted the key factor in attracting him to the project: "There had been some talk about doing a remake of the Danny Kaye film," Stiller admitted, "but I didn't think those [plans lived up] to what it could be. There is so much potential there for a film in terms of a life someone lives in their head. And also the iconic idea of a guy who is just a daydreamer. I found it amazing that there's this two-and-a-half page story that has become such a part of our culture."

To accompany him on this journey, Stiller assembled a talented cast and crew. Academy Award winners Sean Penn and Shirley McClaine headline the supporting cast along with SNL alum Kristen Wiig and indie mainstays Adam Scott and Patton Oswalt. To adapt the short story for the silver screen, Stiller worked with a screenplay by Steven Conrad, himself no stranger to films dealing with midlife crises starring Hollywood's brightest stars, i.e. Nicolas Cage (The Weatherman) and Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness). Stuart Dryburgh, an Academy Award-nominated cinematographer for his work on Jane Campion's The Piano, was chosen to lens the film (featuring on-location shooting from New York to Iceland), while Emmy-nominated composer Theordore Shapiro was brought on board to create the score.


Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The New York Film Festival screening holds particular weight for Stiller, himself a New Yorker who has made his mark on the city doing it all from television and film to treading the boards on Broadway in a 2011 revival of The House of Blue Leaves. "I grew up on the Upper West Side," Stiller told FilmLinc Daily, "and the festival is only a few years older than I am and it's always something I've been aware of. As a director, to be have a film playing with others by directors you really admire, is a real honor." Prepped for nationwide release on Christmas Day, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is sure to create buzz come Oscar season, and perhaps it will be deemed an aesthetic breakthrough for the 47 year old actor/director if the cinematography on display in the trailer serves as any indication. To see a high wattage Hollywood star wrestling with serious themes of life's obstacles and disappointments deserves a hearty round of applause.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
U.S., 2013, 125 min.
Director: Ben Stiller
Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig

NYFF Official Description:

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a dutiful son, a loyal friend, and a man who takes pride in his work as the photo editor of Life Magazine. He is also a compulsive fantasist who gets lost in heroic scenarios in which he saves the life of the co-worker he adores (Kristen Wiig) but who he can barely manage to speak to in reality. When the publication is bought out and a team of corporate hacks elects to go all digital, a legendary photographer (Sean Penn) entrusts Walter with the negative of an image he considers to be perfect for the final cover… that he loses. Walter embarks on a worldwide search for the photographer, which becomes a journey of self-discovery and a recovery of his buried dreams. From James Thurber’s extremely short 1939 story, Ben Stiller has created a sweet, globe-trotting (but New York-based) comic fable with an up-to-the-minute everyman. With Shirley MacLaine in a lovely performance as Walter’s mother. A 20th Century Fox release.

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