The Secret Life of Walter Mitty comes out on Christmas Day in the U.S. (and much of the rest of the world). Basic facts, if you’ve never heard of it: it’s based on a James Thurber short story that appeared in a 1939 issue of The New Yorker. Hollywood has been trying to update it for about 20 years, with directors from Steven Spielberg to Gore Verbinksi attached to it. Initially, Stiller was only going to star in the movie; ultimately, he became the director and producer as well and the budget got to over $100 million. The other stars of the film include some big names in comedy, including Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, and Patton Oswalt. The dramatic “oomph” comes from Sean Penn, who’s in there too (and, theoretically, Shirley MacLaine).
Much was made of Stiller’s box office success during the long, winding road to get this particular film completed, and that’s not anything to sneeze at — the dude has 11 movies that have popped big, including two franchises that are multi-billion dollar enterprises. For a comedic actor, that’s nearly impossible to do; probably the only person who has come close in primarily comedic vehicles over the same time frame is Adam Sandler. The New Yorker did a profile of him last summer, calling him “arguably the world’s biggest comedic movie star.” This is all necessary for the release of Mitty because the reviews don’t seem amazing; in fact, they seem pretty mixed. So being able to sell the movie as “the biggest comedic actor of his generation!” and “the best SNL cast member ever!” and “the guy who dominates the Oscars so long as Daniel Day-Lewis didn’t make a movie that year!” is big.
The other main marketing tact that Mitty‘s people seem to take is comparing it to Forrest Gump. There’s about 72K references connecting the two films via Google, including this article from Screen Rant about how the larger-than-life moments of each film seem the same. In the most recent TV ads I’ve been getting here for Mitty, they throw up reviews that tie it to Forrest Gump.
Stiller cited Forrest Gump as an influence on this film (actually, in that New Yorker profile linked above), along with Little Miss Sunshine and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That should give you an idea of the broader tone and visual style of the flick, provided the trailer embedded at the top doesn’t do that.
So, realistically, could it be anything like Forrest Gump?
Probably not — although there are a couple of basic similarities.
No. 1 is pretty simple: release period. Gump was July 4th weekend of 1994; this is Christmas of 2013. Both are big for movie-goers.
No. 2 is a little deeper: the director. At the time Robert Zemeckis made Gump, he already had some big hits under his belt, notably the Back to the Future movies (but also Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). Mitty is Stiller’s fifth directorial effort, and Tropic Thunder, Zoolander, Cable Guy, and Reality Bites are all solid, well-performing films for the most part. I don’t think anyone would remotely associate Robert Zemeckis and Ben Stiller at any kind of content level, but they were both seasoned directors before their first larger-than-life film (provided you don’t classify Back to the Future as larger-than-life).
No. 3 is the random Penn tie; Robin Wright Penn was, of course, Jenny in Gump. That doesn’t mean much.
No. 4 is the myriad of shooting locations. Stiller leapt into an ocean in Iceland for this movie; Gump had 27 filming locations, although none internationally (the Vietnam scenes were filmed off Beaufort, SC).
Here’s where it starts to fall apart, though: Ben Stiller, while well-perceived for the most part, is no Tom Hanks. This head-to-head chart even essentially proves that, down to the box office gross. For a larger-than-life, adventure-driven movie to go big, it needs an extremely relatable lead. Stiller has that ability, but nowhere near the way Hanks does (or, did in 1994). That’s probably where Mitty is going to fall short of this lofty benchmark of Gump comparison — in the lead role. When I was first sitting down to write this, I was wondering if Mitty flopped, would that make Stiller into a moderately-more-respected version of Adam Sandler? I think Stiller would still be ahead in that race, although others have had the same thought.
Should also be noted that Gump grossed about $677 million (although is still considered “a successful failure”) and, from a cultural standpoint, has been placed in the Library of Congress and is on three AFI Top 100 lists. It’s unlikely the best movie of 2013 — which many seem to now think is 12 Years A Slave — will be on any AFI Top 100 lists anytime soon, much less Mitty. There was a time, probably around the time that the New Yorker profile of Stiller came out last summer, when it seemed like a lot of people were thinking Mitty would get one of the 10 Best Picture nominations; now only one critic on Gold Derby is thinking along those lines.
In all likelihood, it will be a splashy, nice-to-look-at, sometimes-funny, semi-epic movie. It won’t be Forrest Gump. In some respects, it won’t even be Bridesmaids. (Hell, they should just hope it makes as much money as Bridesmaids.)
Ironically, Tom Hanks’ Christmas 2013 season movie will probably lap it with the critics.
This is heralded by some as a transition for Stiller — although it’s not really, since two of his next films are Night at the Museum 3 and Zoolander 2, with possibly While We’re Young as a more dramatic-type role — so it’s not likely to do anything negative for his “legacy,” provided you believe that to be important or definable. The Forrest Gump comparisons make sense in terms of rooting a frame of reference for a potential Christmas afternoon movie-goer, but I almost think the marketing crew behind Mitty should have paid off some critic to bill it as “Little Miss Sunshine goes on an adventure of epic proportions!” or something like that. Linking up too much with Forrest Gump, an American icon, might be setting the bar a little high. But then again, life is like a box of choc– I’ll stop.