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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
For years and years big names in Hollywood have threatened the movie-going public with an updated film adaptation of the James Thurber-penned short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The story had already been adapted for the screen starring Danny Kaye in the 1947 classic film I once sat through in Freshman year English class. But Hollywood heavyweights like Jim Carrey and Steven Spielberg had long wanted to update the property. Their ideas mostly languished in development hell until Sascha Baron Cohen took over (by this point – sometime in the mid-2000s – Owen Wilson was attached to star), but even this project never materialized. In April 2011, some 16 years after Samuel Goldwyn Mayer sold the film rights to a project he expected to see completed in the 90s, it was announced that Ben Stiller would star in and direct the project. So, besides all of this pre-production turmoil, what exactly went wrong?
Ben Stiller is a fine comic actor and an underrated comedy director. He is responsible for some dark gems, including The Cable Guy, a 1996 flop that nearly ruined Jim Carrey’s film career. He also directed (and starred in) Zoolander, a cult classic from 2001 that largely failed at the box office due to the September 11th terrorist attacks on New York City. In 2008, Stiller directed and starred in Tropic Thunder, a war parody film that was a substantial hit and even garnered supporting actor Robert Downey, Jr. an Oscar nomination. It has long been clear, however, that Stiller tends to overreach as a director at times, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a clear case of this. Additionally, Stiller is a fine comic actor who certainly has the ability to be dramatic, but I’m not sure he was suited for the role of the lead. Stiller is great at playing a neurotic, indecisive Woody Allen-type, but I just don’t see him as the daydreamer Walter Mitty is supposed to be. Stiller can play neurotic, but he doesn’t play pathetic so well (see: Mystery Men) and there’s a certain aspect of Mitty that is innately pathetic.
Additionally, pre-release buzz for Mitty turned negative after a sneak October 2013 preview. The early trailers drew high initial praise for the project, but the sneak peak at the New York Film Festival divided audiences and fostered a mixed critical response. Upon release, the film continued to draw negative reviews to the tune of a 50% Rotten Tomatoes score and 54/100 Metacritic rating. The film, which was expected to contend for Oscars, instead became almost forgotten over its Christmas release platform, as bigger films like The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Frozen, and more adult-targeted films like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street dominated the box office. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty then fizzled at the domestic box office, accumulating a 58 million dollar gross against a budget of 90 (some say as high as 125) million dollars. Though the film saved some face overseas, it likely will be a long road to profitability for Fox.
Similar to Fox’s hopes for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Sony also believed Robocop, their recently released reboot/remake, would click with audiences. Robocop was definitely not intended to compete for a family audience like Mitty, but the PG-13 rated film nevertheless met with mixed critical reception and low domestic box office as well. Robocop also spent a significant amount of time in pre-production. Originally planned for a 2010 release, the film was to be directed by none other than Darren Aronofsky, Academy Award-nominated director of films like Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream. The reboot/remake was then planned for a 2013 release, but pushed back once again to 2014, perhaps to avoid a crowded late summer film schedule. So, besides the pre-production hoopla, what exactly went wrong?
The reboot of Robocop, starring Alex Kinnaman (of AMC’s The Killing), Samuel L. Jackson, and Michael Keaton, was met with disdain by fans online due to its announced PG-13 rating (something that had happened with Live Free or Die Hard several years back). While I typically tend to shy away from and also generally discourage online fandom due solely to principle, on this I must agree. The idea of a PG-13 Robocop is ridiculous. The 1987 Paul Verhoeven/Ed Neumeier/Peter Weller original is gloriously violent and over the top. A PG-13 film would certainly be a neutered, bland, uninteresting thing by comparison. The film ultimately drew in mediocre reviews, garnering a 49% Rotten Tomatoes score. Though the cast was praised for their work, the film suffered negative comparisons to the original, as was to be expected.
The Robocop reboot/remake ultimately failed in the American box office, partially due to is PG-13 rating (there was literally nothing new in the theaters for a more mature audience). The biggest factor in its domestic failure, however, was perhaps the unexpected success and universal acclaim for Warner Bros. The Lego Movie, a film so popular it transcended its target demographic of children and young families and spilled over into adult territory. Of course, opening a futuristic science fiction thriller over Valentine’s Day probably wasn’t a great idea either. In the end, Robocop will gross less than 60 million dollars in domestic receipts, which is even less than last year’s hated A Good Day to Die Hard. It has saved some face overseas, but probably not enough to spawn a franchise like Sony had planned. The Verhoeven/Neumeier/Weller original remains the best in the series and an unassailable science fiction classic.