The End of the Tour


Writer to writer face-off.

Writer to writer face-off.

(2015) Biographical Drama (A24) Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Mamie Gummer, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack, Ron Livingston, Mickey Sumner, Becky Ann Baker, Dan John Miller, Chelsea Lawrence, Gina Ferwerda, Noel Fletcher, Lindsey Elizabeth, Johnny Otto, Stephanie Cotton, Joel Thingvall, Michael Cunningham, Rammel Chan, Ken Price, Jennifer Holman. Directed by James Ponsoldt

Fame, particularly for creative sorts, is not the brass ring that we imagine it to be. Many writers, artists, dancers, singers and actors do what they do because it is within them, bursting to get out. The wealth is nice mainly as a validation that they are connecting with someone; fame in and of itself is a dog with a temperament that you never know is going to snuggle with you or tear out your throat.

David Foster Wallace (Segel) has found fame, although he wasn’t looking for it. A literature professor at Illinois State University, his 1,000 plus page tome Infinite Jest has made him the darling of the literary crowd, a young American Turk who is proclaimed the voice of his generation. Wallace, somewhat shy and full of insecurities, is uncomfortable with this designation and is trying more or less to keep to himself.

David Lipsky (Eisenberg) has written a book of his own to little acclaim or acknowledgement. He is passionate about writing though and gets a job at Rolling Stone. When his girlfriend Julie (Gummer) turns him on to Infinite Jest, Lipsky realizes that this is the kind of voice that needs to be heard and he persuades his editor (Livingston) to send him to Bloomington, Illinois to interview the reclusive Wallace.

Wallace really isn’t anything like what Lipsky expected; he is surrounded by big dogs, lives in an unassuming ranch style home with a nice view of the prairie and eats massive amounts of junk food. He wears a bandana as a doo rag in a kind of throwback (even then) look that he takes great pains to say that it isn’t an affectation so much as a security blanket.

The two fly to Minneapolis for the last stop on Wallace’s book tour; they are met at the airport by Patty (Cusack), the publishing house representative who is to shuttle Wallace to a book signing/reading and an NPR interview. Lipsky accompanies him to these things and in meeting friends of his subject afterwards; Sarah (Chlumsky), a big fan who has been corresponding with Wallace for years, and Betsy (Sumner) who once had a relationship with Wallace in college.

In the course of the five days, Wallace and Lipsky talk about their shared likes, the creative process, the nature of fame and the things that motivate them. The two develop a bond that takes an odd turn, leading to an awkward final farewell.

In real life, the article was never published as Rolling Stone, perhaps to their discredit, elected to pass. It was only 12 years later, after Lipsky had heard of Wallace’s suicide, that he discovered the tapes from those five days and wrote a book based on them.

The movie, like the book it’s based on, elects to forego nostalgia and hero-worship and focus on a character study. Do not imagine that you are meeting David Wallace here; five days in the company of anyone, not even constant company, can truly give you an accurate portrayal of who a person is. We get that Wallace is insecure, not just about his talent but how he is perceived. That seems to be a pretty major issue with him. I found it interesting – and maybe a little unsettling – that the original tapes that Lipsky recorded were used mostly to help the actors get into character. Apparently they weren’t used in the writing of the script, so in essence we’re getting all this third hand.

Segel, who has made a career of playing big likable shaggy dog guys in comedies, steps out of his comfort zone and simply put delivers easily the best performance of his career. For all the regular guy affectations that he puts out there, the easy smile hides a great deal of pain. Wallace’s wariness of praise is captured nicely by Segel, who shows Wallace at once embracing his fame and shying away from it. He’s a complicated character and Segel fleshes him out nicely. Although it’s way early, I can see Segel getting some Best Actor buzz later on in the year for this.

Eisenberg I had more problems with. Watching a movie with Jesse Eisenberg in it is the cinematic equivalent of pounding down twenty espressos in a row; you feel nervous and jittery just watching him. Eisenberg’s characters often have a bundle of tics, and an undercurrent of meanness, even when Eisenberg is playing genuinely nice guys. Lipsky doesn’t seem to be; he is interested more in the story than in the person he’s writing about and in that manages to objectify his subject rather than understand him. I admit that is something journalists have a tendency to do and Eisenberg is to be commended for capturing that element of the character and bringing it to life, even though it is sure to make audiences feel antipathy towards Lipsky. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that I was watching Jesse Eisenberg more than David Lipsky; I didn’t get the same impression from Segel.

The movie has a bit of a bittersweet air to it, particularly since we know Wallace’s fate going in. This isn’t about a brilliant author, tormented in life, committing suicide; this is more about the image we project, how we fight to keep it, even if it doesn’t necessarily jibe with who we are. Wallace is portrayed as being obsessed with how others saw him; I can relate to that as I have that tendency myself to really want to be liked, both on a personal level and as a writer. Not that there are many people who want to be disliked; there’d be something sociopathic about that.

At one point, as Wallace he says he likes to be alone; he doesn’t want a lot of people around him. I can understand that; I’m pretty shy with people I don’t know well myself and I have a tendency to prefer spending time on my laptop keyboard writing than in interacting with others most times, but if you’re going to be a writer, if you’re going to be a good writer, you need social interaction. Without it, you’re like a chef in a restaurant  whose menu has only one item on it. You might get really good at that one item, but at the end of the day, you’re limiting yourself. I am admittedly unfamiliar with Wallace’s work and while I definitely intend to sit down with some of his books in the very near future,  I don’t share Lipsky’s assessment that reading him will be like meeting him. He seemed to be far too private a person for that to be true.

REASONS TO GO: Bravura performance by Segel. Real insight to the loneliness of artists. Melancholy and celebratory.
REASONS TO STAY: Eisenberg plays Eisenberg.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some sexual references and a good deal of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to get Wallace’s dogs to pay attention to Eisenberg and Segel, meat was sewn into their clothing. In the scene where the dogs come into Lipsky’s room to wake him up, peanut butter was smeared on Eisenberg’s face so that the dogs would come in and lick his face.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Last Days
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

In the Loop


In the Loop

Peter Capaldi uses some language that would surprise even Tony Soprano.

(IFC) Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini, Steve Coogan, Anna Chlumsky, Chris Addison, Paul Higgins, Gina McKee, Mimi Kennedy. Directed by Armando Iannucci

Words can be crucial things. We assign meaning to them, sometimes a meaning unintended by the person who uttered the words. Those meanings can often take on a life of their own.

Simon Foster (Hollander) is a mid-level British government flunky who has a talent for being absolutely thick in the head. During a radio interview, he casually mentions that an invasion by the U.S. (although it’s never explicitly mentioned in the film, we assume it to be Iraq) is “unforeseeable.” Sounds harmless, but it ignites a firestorm of political maneuvering on both sides of the Atlantic, both from those opposed to war, like State Department Assistant Secretary Karen Clark (Kennedy) and those supporting it like career politician Linton Barwick (the always terrific David Rasche).

In the meantime, foul-mouthed British spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (Capaldi) has had to step in and take charge of the situation which is rapidly spiraling out of control. As Foster backpedals, giving ammunition to the hawks, generally dove-ish General George Miller (Gandolfini) who once had an affair with Clark, is caught in the middle and astutely refuses to take sides. And a report written by one of Clark’s aides (Chlumsky), dubbed “career Kryptonite” by a snarky fellow aide – further exacerbates the mess.

If it all sounds confusing, well, it kind of is, but that’s politics for you. This is actually an extension of a British television series called “The Thick of It” which hasn’t been seen much on this side of the pond, but I’m assured that over in the UK it’s gotten rave reviews. In fact, the filmmakers got unprecedented access to 10 Downing Street because the staffers there were so enamored of the show, which is a little like a “West Wing” movie filming in the actual West Wing.

The movie is extraordinarily well-written (and in fact got an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay), with the kind of humor that comes at you from all sides without pause. One zinger after another follows, which probably doesn’t work as well with American audiences who generally need to be told when to laugh and prefer their humor…paced. The humor here is bone-dry, which again is not what most Americans are used to.

Some of the best British comic actors are working on this, including Capaldi, who reprises the same role he played on the TV show. I’m not sure what the censorship laws are in the UK, but if his verbiage is anything like it is here, it must have melted its share of television speakers. There is a good deal of profanity here, folks, and those sensitive to that kind of language would be well-advised to steer clear of this movie. To its credit, it has some of the most imaginative swearing I’ve ever heard in a movie.

Gandolfini, after his long run as Tony Soprano, is well on his way to being one of the better character actors in the business. He plays a career military man who has risen through the ranks, developing an acute political sense in the process. While he doesn’t believe a war is a good idea, he’s savvy enough to go with the flow, even if he thinks the flow is headed the wrong way. General Miller is very different than the mobster Gandolfini is associated with, which might blow a few minds expecting the character to whack a few feckless Brits himself.

Towards the end, the movie loses its steam and the final resolution is a bit weak. Still, this is an entertaining – if vulgar – movie that is as clever or smart a comedy as you’re likely to see. The beauty of watching it at home is that you can rewind it again and again until you figure out what’s going on. It kind of worked for me, I’m not ashamed to admit.

WHY RENT THIS: Extraordinarily well written with a mind-blowing ensemble cast of some of the best comic actors in both Britain and the United States.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie loses steam in the final reel, leaving the viewer with a curiously unsatisfied feeling.

FAMILY VALUES: This has some of the foulest language you will ever see in a movie. It’s fine for your kids to watch – only if you stuff duct tape into their ears.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After 30 days of filming, the shooting script was 237 pages. The first cut was over four and a half hours long. It took four months to complete the final edit of the version that made it to the screen.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Yonkers Joe