New York Film Fest: 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' Splits Critics, Charms Festivalgoers (Analysis)

NEW YORK -- For the second year in a row, 20th Century Fox has brought to the New York Film Festival a movie that cost a lot of money to make thanks to expensive visual effects, featuring a plot that blends fantasy and reality. It's a moviegoing experience that leaves some viewers cold and others deeply moved. Last year, that film was Ang Lee's Life of Pi, which went on to score a best picture Oscar nomination, among many others, and won the best director Oscar. This year, it is Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which might go on to snag a few noms of its own.

NYFF REVIEW: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

On Saturday morning, the film's first press screening generated sharply divided reactions, but the prevailing reaction at its official world premiere Saturday night, as the fest's centerpiece screening, was much more positive: It received a lengthy standing ovation.

Stiller introduced the film at its premiere by saying, tongue-in-cheek, "I want to thank the Film Society of Lincoln Center for having the courage to include a Ben Stiller film in the festival." Noting that he grew up just 20 blocks from Alice Tully Hall, where the screening took place, he added that Walter Mitty was a "valentine" to New York, having been shot all across the city.

The dramedy was loosely adapted by Steve Conrad from a 1939 James Thurber New Yorker short story, which itself was made into a musical-comedy motion picture starring Danny Kaye in 1947. The new film takes place in the present day. It stars Stiller as the title character, a good-hearted but sad-sack loner who has known sadness, sacrificed for others and worked all but invisibly for 16 years in the photo processing department at waning Life magazine. A perpetual daydreamer prone to awkwardness, he develops a crush on a co-worker (Kristen Wiig), but before he can muster the courage to do anything about it he loses a photo from a famous photographer (Sean Penn), prompting his new boss (a heavily bearded Adam Scott) to tell him that he will lose his job if he doesn't find it. In order to track it down, Walter Mitty must finally go out and experience the world.

PHOTOS: New York Film Festival 2013: 13 Movies to Know

This sort of a story is not new. It's a Wonderful Life (1946) is about a man who gave up so much for others that he never had time for himself. The Wizard of Oz (1939) is about a girl who ventures far from home and eventually concludes that there's no place like it. And Stranger Than Fiction (2006), a film that possesses a tone perhaps most similar to Mitty's, is about a man whose bland life becomes dangerous and exciting because of the presence of unusual activity in his mind.

Films of this sort are generally categorized as "fantasy," which is not the Academy's favorite genre, and this year's awards season is tremendously competitive, so I cannot say with any degree of confidence that this film will be nominated for any major Oscars. But, if I had to venture a guess, I think that voters will check it out (if only because Stiller and Wiig possess such likable screen personas) and probably be charmed by it. Will that be enough to bag it a best picture or best actor nom anywhere but at the Golden Globes? We'll have to see how the rest of the field shakes out, but I wouldn't rule it out.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg