Sunday, September 27, 2015

The End of the Tour

Alternate Title:  My Weekend with David

One sentence synopsis:     A Rolling Stone reporter travels to North Dakota to interview David Foster Wallace during his book tour to promote Infinite Jest.

Things Havoc liked:  I did not know David Foster Wallace. I did meet him a couple of times. He was an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Pomona College while I was studying there for my undergraduate degree. I was not able to take his course, though friends of mine were, and spoke well and highly of it and him. Wallace,of course, became famous for writing a novel called Infinite Jest, a thousand page tome brimming with supposed genius unread by me, as I have little interest in highbrow literary fiction. But I knew, then and now, of his importance to the world of literature, a man compared unironically to Proust and Hemmingway, and wish I had had a chance to take one of his courses. Failing that, however, I have this film, depicting a lengthy set of conversations between Wallace and Rolling Stone reporter (and novelist in his own right) Dave Lipsky during the final days of Wallace's publicity tour for Infinite Jest in the winter of 1996.

I'm well aware that everyone I know has already closed the review, surmising that this is another self-indulgent writers-on-writing sort of movie. And it is. But bear with me a moment, I beg you.

The End of the Tour is the sort of movie Richard Linklatter would make if he were trying to remake My Dinner with Andre, the infamously impenetrable Louis Malle film from 1981 which featured Wallace Shawn and Angre Gregory literally having dinner and talking about philosophy and experimental theater. It is an earthy, pretenseless film about two intelligent men trying to have an intelligent conversation about a number of matters that seem great to them, conscious as they do so that these matters may not be so great in the grand scheme of things. It is a movie whose subject matter should interest about a third of one percent of the population, but manages nonetheless to be spellbinding, not through artifice nor revelations of grand and universal truths, but via the more simple method of portraying interesting characters on the screen and following them around a while. The centerpiece of it is Wallace himself played to a pitch of perfection I have not seen in some time by Jason Segel, a man I had so little use for previous to this occasion that I don't believe I've ever seen him before. And perhaps I still have not, for Segel transforms himself into... if not David Foster Wallace himself, then a perfectly credible facsimile of the man that might have been. Bearing Wallace's trademark bandana, expounding at length his vague, unclear theories on writing, his insecurities about being seen as faking normalcy through his quotidian habits, and indulging in those habits themselves, from junk food to a profound appreciation for movies like Die Hard and Broken Arrow (ah, the 90s...), Segel is absolutely spot perfect in a role that could not possibly have been anything but torturous for an actor better known for sitcoms and romantic comedies. I don't know how faithful the representation is. My friend who took courses from Wallace was convinced and so was I, though Wallace's estate disowned the picture and his dearer friends have all claimed it is a travesty, mostly sight-unseen. But I do know that Segel is almost impossible to not watch, displaying Wallace's vulnerabilities, his meandering prolixity, his desperate desire to remain in some way genuine to himself in the face of nagging fear that he has never been so. His Wallace is a man who is not a regular guy, but desperately wants to believe that he is, who opines a preference for dogs over a girlfriend because he wouldn't know what to say on a date, and then goes home to write thousand page epochal novels, who analyzes his own television addiction even as he indulges in it, all without ever appearing, as biopics of this sort can often appear, to be nothing more than a screenwriter's conceited attempt at inventing some "brilliant, conflicted" parody, the sorts of which we find on dramatic network TV all the time nowadays. Segel makes Wallace look deeply human, and it is an achievement I have seen very few actors attain.

The End of the Tour was directed by Indie darling James Ponsoldt, whose last film, The Spectacular Now, made the usual circuit of film festival awards two years ago. My tolerance for such fare is limited, but Ponsoldt's directorial style and production is very deliberately low-key in this one, filming the subjects in an intimate, low-budget style to accent the focus on what they're actually talking about. To this end, he has employed Jessie Eisenberg, an actor I've never had much use for, to portray David Lipsky, whose task in the film is less to portray a character and more to assist Segel in portraying his. Younger than Wallace and infinitely less successful as an author, Eisenberg uses all of his awkward slightly-superficial charm to play a character who must ultimately force Wallace's character open for his interview, with the helpful side effect of letting us see what lies within the main subject. He gets a lot across with small gestures, fumbling with a tape recorder or using a moment's privacy to surreptitiously itemize Wallace's entire house, the better to recollect the details of the article he will one day write. Eisenberg allows just a hint of the wormy, anti-socialness he brought to The Social Network to infuse this character as he challenges Wallace not just on subjects such as drug use and institutionalization, but also the way in which Wallace affects at normalcy while consciously dumbing himself down to appeal to "normal" people around him. He does this because he must, as an interviewer and a journalist, and because Wallace is a man who wants to explain himself to himself if not to others. They clash, fight even, sit in awkward silence, mutually decide to proceed as though nothing happened, and press one another on the answers to mysteries as varied as existential meaning and Alanis Morisette. One does not, in the aftermath, get the sense that it's an experience Wallace would be interested in repeating, nor one that propelled Lipsky to new profound heights with his own writing. But the interplay between the characters offers so much richness of character and depth, that the plain intention is to offer us, the audience the catharsis that neither of them are capable of generating. And it is a strange movie indeed that causes me to write sentences like that.

Things Havoc disliked:  The End of the Tour is a film with very narrow horizons, by requirement, certainly, and that's no bad thing, but given how enrapturing the lead performance is, one wonders at the inclusion of everything else. An extended introduction to Lipsky, his work as a novelist and reporter, his budding interest in conducting the interview and the process whereby he convinces his boss to let him eats up a lot of runtime, and I'm not convinced it pays off in any way in revealing more about the subject of the film. As I mentioned above, the movie isn't really about Lipsky, but uses Lipsky to reveal more about Wallace, and while that's the right call manifestly, this much focus on the other character makes me wonder if that was not something of an accidental design choice.

There's also a good deal of stunt casting going on, from Ron Livingston as Lipsky's Rolling Stone boss to Joan Cusack as Wallace's hapless driver and escort around Minneapolis. Neither of them are bad at their roles, particularly not Livingston, whom I always love to watch. But Segel is so good at becoming Wallace, and Eisenberg so good at deflecting the spotlight back at him, that one forgets that one is looking at actors at all, until one is violently reminded of such by Cusack or Livingston. It's an unfair criticism, I acknowledge as much, but a filmmaker's job is to artfully craft a reaction from an audience, and my reaction was that I'd almost have preferred a more stripped-down version of this story to one that felt the need to dip back into more conventional cinema every half hour or so.

Final thoughts:   In 2008, David Foster Wallace hanged himself at his home outside Pomona College after a lifelong battle with depression and anxiety. He was 46. His longtime editor described him as "a comet flying by at ground level", while fellow author Bret Easton Ellis, writer of American Psycho, called him the biggest literary fraud of his lifetime (it should be mentioned that Ellis went on to claim that women were incapable of directing movies because they lacked the necessary 'male gaze', so take that for what you will). The End of the Tour does not seek to explain what David Foster Wallace's place was in American literature, nor to understand his depression and suicide holistically, though both subjects are touched upon, with some care, by the characters themselves. Instead, it seeks, as best it can with a subject who has been dead for seven years and who would likely not have wished to have biographical films made about him were he not, to portray a version of the man as he either was or might have been. In this, it is an unqualified success, a movie that rivets the attention as it digresses whimsically through perspectives on writing, Americana, angst, ego, and the need to be accepted or recognized. I will not pretend that these subjects aren't personally of interested to me, but my tolerance, as all of you have learned, for pretentious tripe done up in indie trappings, is very limited, and I have not hesitated to pillory critically-acclaimed films of this sort in the past, should they transgress my limits. Yet I keep returning, despite films like Under The Skin or Boyhood, precisely in the hopes that a thoughtful, hungry young indie director will make a movie like this one, a movie I simply wished to continue, that I might hear more of what this version, real or fictional, of David Foster Wallace had to say.

I did not know David Foster Wallace. I did meet him a couple of times. Perhaps the person I met in the theater last week was very much like him and perhaps he was not, and perhaps, as Wallace himself believed, all biographies are suspect, because the life of an author is incidental to his work. But whoever he was, making his acquaintance again was one of the best times I've had in a theater this year.

Final Score:  8/10

Next Time:  Johnny Depp wears ridiculous makeup.  Film at 11.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Walk in the Woods

Alternate Title:  The Carolina Death March

One sentence synopsis:     Bill Bryson and an old friend of his from long-past adventures decide to hike the entire Appalachian Trail.

Things Havoc liked:  Though my compulsive need to warn you all about bad films may seem like it would leave me with no time at all to spare, I do manage to get in a bit of reading here and there, and one of my favorite authors is travel and science writer Bill Bryson, author of all sorts of books from A Short History of Nearly Everything to Mother Tongue to a series of travelogues throughout Australia, Britain, Europe, and America. Bryson's writing style is a distinctive, newspaper-column sort of thing, not precisely the type of writing I would normally expect to see converted into a movie, but here we sit, and I wanted to see if Bryson's caricatures and sense of humor would carry through intact to a movie that included, among other luminaries, Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. With the September Slump upon is, the yearly pause before the storm that is Oscar Season, it seemed a reasonable thing to go and see. How bad could it really be?

Things Havoc disliked:  *Sigh*

Robert Redford sucks. I've always believed that Robert Redford sucks. He sucked when he was younger, he sucked when he was middle-aged, and he sucks as an old man, all for the exact same reasons. The man does not know how to act. Any glance at any film of his, from Jeremiah Johnson and Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, to Out of Africa or The Sting (where he inexplicably won an Oscar nod), to more recent fare such as The Last Castle or The Horse Whisperer, Robert Redford has persisted in acting like nothing but a "charming," smarmy, useless, depth-free non-actor who thinks that a winning smile can somehow cover for all faults. Yes, he occasionally manages to elevate his game to merely "acceptable", such as in Spy Game, or last year's Winter Soldier. Woop-de-freaking-do. Most of the time he puts out crap like this, standing about in the middle of a movie set like he has only the vaguest notion of what's going on around him, reciting his dialogue as though it's being fed to him via an earpiece, delivering "jokes" (I cannot put enough quotation marks around that word) with the flattest, most timing-free delivery imaginable. Playing Bill Bryson himself, he fails to get across even the reasons why he has decided to undertake a 2,000+ mile hike through the forest, muttering incoherently about unrelated inanities in the hopes that someone, the director or editor or some extra, will rush in to save him from the need to convey emotions to the audience. He shares no chemistry with any other actor, not with his "best friend", Nick Nolte (who at least salvages some dignity by actually acting), not with his "wife" Emma Thompson (totally wasted in a role that could have been played by an extra), not with his son or his son's friends (one of whom is played by Nick Offermann, for no reason I could determine), not with the other people on the trail, not with Back To The Future III's Mary Steenburgen (whose presence here cannot be explained by the wisest of men), not with anybody. He looks like someone's confused great-uncle, the one you don't really know but know you're supposed to be polite to, awkwardly reciting "jokes" in the style of Rainier Wolfcastle, ones that he plainly doesn't understand, be they the simplest of sarcastic remarks. His hair looks like someone shaved a Golden Retriever to make a wig. He is useless.

But then this entire movie is useless, really, and the fault for that goes beyond Redford and to the director of this unfunny, leaden weight of a movie, Ken Kwapis, who had his debut in 1985 making the pristine Sesame Street movie Follow That Bird, and has been paying for it ever since with crap like Dunston Checks in, The Beautician and the Beast, and He's Just Not That Into You. Perhaps his true calling is children's films, I don't know, but were it not for obligatory F-bombs to remind us that we're all supposed to be adults here, I would have pegged the target age of this movie as being roughly 5. The jokes mostly consist of someone making a comment ("We must have covered a long distance!" "I hope it doesn't rain!") followed immediately by the most obvious "ironic" result one would instantly imagine (They encounter a map showing that they have not covered a long distance, It begins to rain, etc...). Several times, the characters even look at the camera following the "joke", as though expecting a sitcom sound effect (Wah, wah, waaaaaahh...) to play. Repeat this about a hundred and thirty times throughout the film, and you have the entire thing. All of the obligatory buddy-travelogue movie touchpoints, the wacky hijinx involving colorful locals, the bitter outpouring of long-repressed anger, the tearjerking reconciliation and regrets over having lost touch, all of it is entirely pro-forma, unconnected from one scene to the next, with Redford reciting his dialogue like he's reading a menu and Nolte shifting phlegm up and down his throat with every wheezing breath. Even plot points plainly established for later payoff, like the fact that Nolte's character needs to eat every hour due to some syndrome he picked up from contaminated tap water years earlier (how exactly does this man propose to hike two thousand miles again?) is brought up once for a cold, laugh-less joke, and then never again mentioned.

Final thoughts:   A Walk in the Woods is a complete waste of time, a wretched, joyless enterprise that fails to entertain or elicit any emotion whatsoever from its audience. Familiar as I am with the source material, I can see where the filmmakers tried to include touchpoints from the books, the woman our heroes encounter too annoying to believe, or Redford's solemn prognostications concerning the death of the American Chestnut tree, but none of it feels genuine, spontaneous, or even worth listening to. Nick Nolte, who is a proper actor, manages to salvage some dignity from the affair, but everyone else (particularly Thompson) is left to meander without direction, or as usual shows himself unfamiliar with the concept of direction or acting in general (Redford). Perhaps this just goes to show how good the original book actually was, as the story is essentially the same, as are many of the anecdotes, or perhaps simply it illustrates a more general division between a good storyteller and a bad one, regardless of medium.

Honestly, whatever the purposes you set it to as an example, A Walk in the Woods is simply a bad movie. And even in the September Slump, there's never an excuse for that.

Final Score:  3.5/10

Next Time:  A return to indie cinema in the person of an old acquaintance...

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