Sundance films have less of a Minnesota flavor this year

25 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The End of the Tour': Sundance Review.

PARK CITY, UTAH — This year’s Sundance Film Festival has a rich roster of films from all around the world but not that many this season from Minnesota. 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.

There’s too little drama and insight to this dramatization of journalist David Lipsky’s encounter with the late ‘Infinite Jest’ novelist David Foster Wallace. 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. At least the fifth movie about an odd-couple buddy duo (and the only one without a stated homosexual element) I’ve seen is “The End of the Tour,” and it’s by far the most moving and profound of them all, with a funny, lightly intellectual script by Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist Donald Margulies that should merit heavy awards consideration.

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. 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. A slightly younger novelist who’d returned to journalism after winning good reviews but low sales with two early books, Lipsky was — like many — awed by the sheer ambition and frequent brilliance of Wallace’s second novel, “Infinite Jest.” At 1,079 extremely dense pages, its phantasmagorical sprawl invited a degree of media attention rare for a modern literary novel; that it was as frequently exasperating and impenetrable as it was enthralling only heightened the fascination.

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. Each questions the other pointedly, building a relationship of admiration and mistrust while producing the kind of enigmatic conversations only a writer of genius can offer. Particularly since director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, Smashed) is uninterested in any winking 90s nostalgia or even poking for anything juicy to expose. 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. The film ends their journey in Minneapolis, where Joan Cusack plays a golly-gee chauffeur for visiting celebrities and Mamie Gummer is a City Pages staffer who became a huge fan and good friend of Wallace. 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.

The 20-minute sequence includes a visit to Bloomington’s Mall of America, where the writers marvel at the vast roller coasters and milelong walking paths, and a slice of literary history with a recreation of St. 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. Flying from New York to meet his subject in the Midwest (he was then teaching at Illinois State U.), Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) finds the perpetually bandana-domed Wallace (Jason Segel) living alone with his dogs in a nondescript ranch-style home. Paul’s legendary Hungry Mind bookstore, which hosted important national writers for decades before closing in 2004. “City of Gold” is premiering in the U.S.

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. The film’s central figure is Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, whose writing goes beyond flavor descriptions to essays explaining how diverse cultures explore their city and communicate through food. His editor takes pity on him when he begs for the assignment to profile Wallace, of whom he is greatly jealous but recognizes is every bit the genius all the critics say he is. 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. It’s directed and produced by current Los Angelino/Twin Cities native Laura Gabbert, whose earlier docs include 2009’s “No Impact Man,” which followed a New York environmentalist trying to live an eco-correct life.

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. 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. 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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