I attended this morning’s press screening of Robert ZemeckisThe Walk at IMAX headquarters in Playa del Rey. I found the first 100 minutes fairly dreadful — over-acted, “cute”, hamboned, like some kind of Gene Kelly musical…as manipulative and ungenuine and disrespectful of reality as any Hollywood bullshit fantasy you’ve ever sat through. But the last 25 minutes deliver one of the greatest visual knockout experiences I’ve ever seen on an IMAX screen. This finale is so good that I have no choice to but recommend The Walk despite all the awful stuff.

Yes, that’s my review in a nutshell — The Walk will make you feel nauseous but you need to see the finale so I’m sorry but you’ll have to suffer through it. 98% of the time a movie that drives you nuts for the first three-quarters will deliver a sucky finish. But not this time.

What Zemeckis has done is take the real-life, inspirational saga of wire-walker Phillippe Petit (played by Joseph Gordon Levitt), the ginger-haired Frenchman who walked on a wire between the World Trade Center towers eight times on the morning of 8.7.74, and turn it into cliched, manipulative, family-friendly oatmeal.

James Marsh‘s Man on Wire (’09) took the exact same material and made one of the most fascinating and spiritually uplifting docs of the 21st Century. Zemeckis’ film is basically Man on Wire for megaplex idiots — for the fine citizens who need to feel scared or awed and have everything spelled out for them, as if they’re eight or nine years old. If you’re a fan of dumbing stuff down for whatever reason, you’ll love The Walk. It has laughs, charm, love, silliness, slapstick, quirky humor, thrills, passion, suspense! And broad strokes every which way. And that knockout ending!

I now have a good idea what it was like for Petit to walk between the towers on that fateful morning. Seriously. Try watching this segment without moaning or groaning or gripping your knees. Try looking down 110 stories in 3D from Petit’s POV. Go ahead, give it a shot. The words “holy” and “shit” will form in your mind. Whether or not you say them is up to you.

I’m so freaked by heights that one time I was overlooking 57th Street from a balcony about 20 stories up, and I suddenly felt so afraid of that in-between feeling of being terrified of death but also wanting to jump off and fly away like a bird that I forced myself down on the balcony floor and crawled on my belly through an opening in the sliding glass door and into the living room. Then again I used to work as a tree surgeon in my 20s — ropes, saddles, spikes, chain saws, pole trimmers. Go figure.

I only know that The Walk‘s finale conveys an awful feeling of being thisclose to death but at the same time a sense of great tingly exhilaration. Then again the first 100 minutes are like watching Ratatouille.

It starts with the French-accented Gordon Levitt, doing his best Pepe le Pew, addressing the audience as he stands inside the torch of the Statue of Liberty — yes, the one that Norman Lloyd fell from during the finale of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Saboteur.

“Alloo, my nahhm is Jiminy Cricket, and I believe in wishing upon a star! Actually my name is Phillipe Petit with my hair dyed dark brown and looking more Hawaiian than French. But I believe, like Jiminy, in following my very special dream or else what value has life? And so zat is what I am doing — narrating this happy family movie and smiling and being charming and telling you about my crazy life as a Parisian performing acrobat and wire-walker, and…well, how you say?…involving you in this wonderful, thrilling story for zee whole family! Mais oui!”

The Walk was made with two thoughts in mind: (1) Petit’s World Trade Center wire-walk will be awesome to experience in 3D IMAX, and (2) Joe Popcorn is too thick and insensitive to feel satisfied by the reality of what happened so it has to be juiced up.

“Marsh’s documentary just laid out the facts as they happened,” Zemeckis and his producers probably said during their first meeting, “but we’re gonna have to pump this sucker up and make everything seem much more thrilling and touching and movie-suspenseful…right? We need to pump out that movie bullshit and lather it on like icing. We need to pretend this is Toby Tyler and that we’re all circus performers. We need guys yelling ‘Phillipe, they’re going to cut zee wire!’ We need helicopters flying right over Petit as he’s balancing himself on the wire, pounding out wave after wave of destabilizing air that might knock him off balance. We need cops who sound like Toody and Muldoon from Car 54, Where Are You? or like neighborhood goons from Paddy Chayefsky‘s Marty. We need Italians who talk about calzone and their great-grandfathers being from Sicily. We need Clarabelle the Clown and his seltzer bottle.

“Marsh could afford to tell Petit’s story in a naturalistic way, but we can’t. We need to attract those fine citizens who wouldn’t watch Man on Wire with a knife at their backs, and that means making a kind of cartoon and dumbing it so far down that Petit, still with us at age 65, will want to bend over and ram his head up his ass and keep it there until The Walk is off to home video.”

I was sitting in the fifth row middle before this morning’s screening began. Three casually dressed guys in their 30s (T-shirts, shorts, sneakers) took seats to my left. The guy to my immediate left was hugely impressed by the 3D IMAX logo at the very beginning. “Whoa-whoa…whoahh!,” he went. “What an easy lay,” I said to myself, glancing with faint disgust. Sure enough, this guy worshipped The Walk start to finish — he laughed and chuckled and went “whoa!” and “whoa-hoa…yeah!” at every cheap bullshit trick that Zemeckis threw at him. The Walk is made for guys like this. Me? I sneered and rolled my eyes and twitched for the first hour and 40 minutes. And then the payoff.

Once again, I’m not saying I’m forgiving Zemeckis for the way he made The Walk. But I’m saying that the ending more than makes up for all the crap you have to to sit through. Your call.