Sundance 2015, Day 2: Jason Segel plays David Foster Wallace in a terrific two …

25 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The End of the Tour': Sundance Review.

The End of The Tour may be about David Foster Wallace, but James Ponsoldt’s (The Spectacular Now, Smashed) new film can’t be called a biopic. Park City, Utah — By the dawn of the second full day of screenings at North America’s preeminent showcase for independent cinema Saturday, the buying and selling of movies in this picturesque ski hamlet was already in full swing.Many journalists who have written feature profiles of public figures will have experienced that light-bulb moment, once the cautious mutual-assessment phase is concluded and you start digging for the meat, when the subject perhaps casually reveals some illuminating aspect of him- or herself around which the entire article can be built. On the heels of a heated bidding session, the day began with the news that Relativity has snapped up distribution rights for the raunch-comedy The Bronze for a reported $3 million. Lipsky’s memoir is titled “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace,” about a five-day interview with the novelist in 1996.

One: as Wallace, Jason Segel is really wonderful; sensitive and subtle, a pleasant surprise after the somewhat wince-inducing paparazzi photos of him on set in full bandana-and-wire-rim cosplay regalia that made the internet rounds last year. The movie stars The Big Bang Theory’s Melissa Rauch as a hard-swearing, allergy meds-snorting former gymnast who becomes a reluctant mentor to a 16-year-old up-and-comer training for the Olympics.

A dozen years after that interview, Wallace, the acclaimed author of “Infinite Jest,” killed himself. “One thing that was so special about Wallace’s writing was, he touched on so many universal human emotions,” said Segel after the screening. “In playing him, I just tried to pay attention to the parts of us all that are the same.” A stranger, more out-there face-to-face occurs in “The Overnight.” A quirky quartet piece about two sets of parents finding they have different ideas of friendship, the movie has a squeamishly silly pool scene in which costars Jason Schwartzman and Adam Scott have a full-frontal frolic. Falling halfway between “Almost Famous” and “My Dinner with Andre,” this love song to the art of conversation is about a Rolling Stone journalist, David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) who is infatuated with the postmodernist novelist David Foster Wallace’s gargantuan novel “Infinite Jest” and begs for the opportunity to profile the author, who is about to leave his snowbound rural home in Illinois for a five-day book tour to Minneapolis.

The same compassionate observation of human imperfections that distinguished Ponsoldt’s films Smashed and The Spectacular Now makes him an ideal interpreter of this material, while playwright Donald Margulies’ thoughtful screenplay brings tremendous insight into the way writers’ minds work. Fans of the late Wallace will be curious, but A24 (which bought U.S. rights just before the film’s Sundance premiere) will need stronger notices than they’ll likely get to pull anyone else toward a plotless two-hander whose central dynamic isn’t as compelling as intended.

And those who feel they truly grok DFW are wont to say: “He’d have hated this!” Yet the ability to slip into this movie and spend time with a reasonable facsimile of the celebrated author as he puts R.E.M. on his stereo, eats Pop Tarts and eloquently expounds on the pitfalls of modern society is, unquestionably, a delight. Wallace, played as a shambling, reflective, moody, acutely self-aware and rigorously honest lost soul by Jason Segel, immediately impresses Lipsky with his utter lack of pretense, his fondness for his dogs and his appreciation (very much shared by Lipsky) for junk food and Pepsi. This is no conventional biodrama about the tortured artist, but very much the film that lovers of Wallace’s dazzlingly perspicacious fiction and essays would want.

Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now,” also released by A24, won a special jury award at Sundance in 2013 as did his drama “Smashed” the year before. I just want everyone to know that!” Keanu Reeves also tried new things, with a midnight screening of the horror thriller “Knock, Knock,” directed by Eli Roth (“Hostel”). Lipsky serves as an acolyte, a sounding board and a friend, and yet Wallace, himself an experienced journalist, is suspicious of his interlocutor’s motives. Already fairly well known for his first novel, “The Broom of the System,” and some remarkable essays, Wallace had very mixed feelings about his newfound celebrity. Segel’s Wallace, living alone in a cheap dump out in the middle of nowhere, represents the conflicted, beating heart of self-aware American pop consumerism just waiting for that cholesterol clog to come kill him.

This is a man of endless contradictions; he’s shaggy and sleepy-headed but sharp and always questioning, wryly candid but then unexpectedly defensive and guarded. He allows that he’d love to leverage his fame for sex, but he’s also so shy and passive that the only way he can picture a liaison occurring is if a fangirl should approach him at a book signing and inform him that she’ll appear at his hotel room later. It is based on reporter Dave Lipsky’s memoir of spending five days with Wallace during the Infinite Jest publicity tour, 12 years before Wallace’s suicide. The directorial debut of comedian Kevin Pollak takes an in-depth look at the mechanics of making audiences laugh, featuring candid interviews with top-tier funny people including Whoopi Goldberg, Larry David, Judd Apatow, Janine Garofolo and Jimmy Fallon. A more sedate meeting occurs in “A Walk in the Woods,” in which Redford himself costars with Nick Nolte as college friends reconnecting after 40 years to hike the Appalachian Trail together. (It was only the second time in three decades that Redford appeared in a movie at his own festival.) The movie is sprightly despite starring two men in their 70s, with Nolte particularly showing some gusto in physical scenes you wouldn’t think he could do — but he does.

Wallace says dogs are better than women because although (he stresses) he doesn’t have sex with the beasts, he can avoid the worry that he’s breaking their hearts. The film considers such intangibles as the illusory bond of friendship between ambitious interviewer and celebrated subject, professional envy, the loneliness of writing, the mental transference of reading, and the sheer exhilarating buzz of stimulating two-way conversation. They travel to a bookstore reading and some additional publicity chores in the Minneapolis area, where Joan Cusack plays their publisher-assigned driver. Ronan stars in writer-director Nikole Beckwith’s haunting “Stockholm, Pennsylvania,” about a woman who returns home after nearly twenty years away from her father and mother (Cynthia Nixon, who is excellent), only to find a new form of imprisonment. “I think, as audience members and actors and filmmakers and writers, we’re so used to a character going some place or changing or transforming or having that kind of eureka moment, and the kind of beauty of this character is that she stays herself through the whole thing,” said Ronan, whose other film, “Brooklyn,” debuts Monday. He’s wary of fame because years toiling as a literary novelist were only endurable because he convinced himself that the acclaimed writers weren’t any good; now that he has joined the ranks of the well-known, he is suffering from cognitive dissonance.

It adopts the late writer’s perspective as the apologetic representative of a privileged, over-educated generation frequently destined to find disappointment in achievement. The two Davids also spend some time hanging out with locals Julie (Mamie Gummer) and Betsy (Mickey Sumner), respectively a fan-turned-friend and former college girlfriend of Wallace’s. The bulk of the picture is Lipsky and Wallace just talking – about writing, about television, about technology, relationships, fame and, most importantly, being genuine.

He disputes any notion that wearing a headband all the time is an “affectation;” it’s more like a “foible,” he says, one of his many defense mechanisms. Perception overwhelms the poor man; filtering out and paring down everything he senses is a lifelong struggle, even as he realizes that being an artist doesn’t give him any special license to complain or wallow in depression.

Having read the rhapsodic reviews of Wallace’s encyclopedic 1,079-page 1996 novel Infinite Jest and then been somewhat crushed to find they weren’t exaggerating, Lipsky, himself a published fiction author of more modest success, pitched a feature to Rolling Stone, a magazine with scant history of profiling writers. The two men also clash somewhat whenever Lipsky brings up the more discomfiting rumors about his subject (who admits to being placed on suicide watch during a depressed period some years earlier, but denies ever having been a heroin addict). The film, which is almost entirely a dialogue between Segel’s Wallace and Eisenberg’s Lipsky, paints the interview – because that’s what it was and never ceased to be, no matter how intimate and at times charged their conversation becomes — a kind of foreign invasion.

Near the end he remarks that one of the things he’s learned that makes him feel pretty smart is that he’s not really that much smarter than anyone else, nor gifted with a richer interior life. He accompanied Wallace on the final leg of his book tour, but the interview was never published, its intimate revelations surfacing only later as a memoir following the subject’s untimely death. Saying he “treasure(s) my regular-guyness,” Wallace bridles at the suggestion that his protestations of inarticulacy and shyness are just a packaged authorial persona. And he notes (five years before 9/11) that someone might plausibly jump out of a burning skyscraper not because he wants to die but because the alternative is too painful to contemplate.

A handful of actors make lovely impressions in small roles, among them Anna Chlumsky as Lipsky’s girlfriend, Mickey Sumner as Wallace’s grad-school pal, Mamie Gummer as another longtime friend and admirer, Becky Ann Baker as a Twin Cities bookstore manager and Joan Cusack as Wallace’s amusingly down-to-earth driver on that final tour stop. In the post-film Q&A Pondsoldt spoke highly of Lipsky’s book (which I have not read) and Lipsky himself, so I am led to believe that the overwhelming loathing I felt for Eisenberg’s portrayal of the author was not intentional. Nonetheless, as awkward as their mutually probing forced friendship often is, we’re meant to understand that they do bond on some significant level. He’s unable to engage with Lipsky without worrying about three chess moves down the road – about how things will be perceived, and how his reaction to that perception will be perceived. The assignment takes Lipsky from New York to the untidy home on the sparse, snowbound outskirts of Bloomington, IL, where Wallace is living with his two big goofy dogs.

Later, when his book transcribing their five-day talks is published after Wallace’s suicide in 2008 at age 46 (the original Rolling Stone article never ran), Lipsky recalls the whole experience as the greatest conversation he ever had. Their interactions are tentative at first, with Wallace voicing his circumspect feelings about the interview by suggesting he’d like to write a profile on the people who have attempted to profile him.

But gradually, over diner meals and shared pop tarts, junk food binges and long freeway drives, a semblance of trust, respect and even affection develops. By the time he returns to New York from the snowy anonymity of Bloomington, Illinois one doesn’t get the sense that he would have conducted himself any differently during his time with Wallace. Segel’s shambling impersonation captures the man’s unease in his own skin, but the brilliance of his mind and talent are things we must take entirely on faith. After Eisenberg’s more adventuresome performances in “Night Moves” and “The Double” last year, his neurotic tics feel on autopilot here; he doesn’t create a character distinct from their over-familiar rhythms. Pointing that out in this review may be, as Wallace says early in the movie, “too po-mo and cute,” but it’s hard not to think on this while watching, especially considering how much of the discussion is about wanting to appear like you don’t want to appear in something.

The two leads’ clashing styles might work if the film were entirely about two superficially similar people’s inability to truly find common ground. He makes Lipsky both worshipful and slightly predatory, but he never loses the audience’s sympathy; his character clearly believes that a genuine relationship has been formed and, for as long as possible, he resists the urging of his editor (Ron Livingston) to grill Wallace about rumors of his heroin addiction. And in the face of Lipsky’s insatiability, the Segel can’t help but portray Wallace as constantly on the defensive, protecting nothing less than his own interiority.

This, perhaps in combination with the nature of the source material, paints an even more saintly, beleaguered picture of Wallace than a conventional Oscar-bait biopic would. He ambles about in Wallace’s guise of granny glasses, straggly hippie hair wrapped in a bandana, and anti-fashion apparel that marks him as resistant to his cresting fame, as does his unpretentious Midwestern speech.

Though he provides a 12-years-later framing device, Margulies can’t find much narrative structure (let alone momentum) in the protagonists’ mildly interesting interactions over these few days’ course. The film is bookended by flash forwards after Wallace’s death by suicide in 2008: we see Lipsky eulogize Wallace on NPR and at a (much better attended) reading of Although Of Course…, and these are his final acts of consumption and assumption of his subject. The actor has a way of switching in an instant from easygoing banter into an accusatory stare whenever the character feels his privacy is being violated. A scene during a plane trip, in which Wallace speaks frankly about his bouts of depression, his drinking and his experience on suicide-watch is profoundly moving. Design and tech contributions are pro, though the general faceless, wintry Midwestern ambiance feels like one more element that neither reflects anything much about the characters nor makes a strong impression in and of itself.

But as if to underscore the folly of this, Ponsoldt pairs the reading from Lipsky’s book with a gauzy, ecstatic final image of Wallace dancing at the Baptist church — the dance he had told Lipsky he’d be headed after they parted ways; a moment Lipsky was not there for, armed with his ever-present with tape recorder and notepad. For a movie that’s almost entirely driven by talk, this has a graceful fluidity thanks to Jakob Ihre’s elegant widescreen cinematography and Darrin Navarro’s editing, moving the action smoothly from place to place with unerring rhythm. Lively song selections also punctuate the film, including a raucous Alanis Morissette shout-out, prompted by Wallace’s fandom, but tellingly catching him in a moment of brooding introspection. In the canon of movie portraits of oddball artists, this one in its generosity of spirit, its soulfulness and effortless assimilation of a particular literary style recalls American Splendor, the wonderful tribute by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman to underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar.

Ponsoldt is a known quantity at this point, but his latest film — picked up for U.S. distribution by A24 on the day of its premiere — is a significant step forward, its rewards amplified by its emotional restraint. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Jakob Ihre; editor, Darrin Navarro; music, Danny Elfman; music supervisor, Tiffany Anders; production designer, Gerald Sullivan; art director, Sarah M. Pott; set decorator, Yvette Granata; costume designer, Emma Potter; sound (Dolby Digital), Jean-Yves Munch; supervising sound editor, Ryan Collins; re-recording mixer, Leslie Shatz; assistant director, Nicolas D.

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