David Strat­ton and Stephen Romei as­sess the lat­est re­leases

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

An­other week, an­other two fine films that are in­ex­pli­ca­bly dif­fi­cult to see. At the time of writ­ing The End of the Tour was screen­ing only at Mel­bourne’s Cin­ema Nova and Mis­sis­sippi Grind at that venue and also at Perth’s Luna Cin­ema. If you can’t see them there you will have to wait un­til the dig­i­tal and DVD re­leases. Both are worth seek­ing out, es­pe­cially The End of the Tour, a biopic about a week or so in the life of the great and tragic Amer­i­can nov­el­ist David Foster Wal­lace, who killed him­self in 2008, aged 46.

As with Knight of Cups and Truth, both re­viewed in th­ese pages in re­cent weeks, it seems there’s less room at the inn this Christ­mas for in­tel­li­gent, nu­anced film­mak­ing. The odd­est part of this, to my mind, is that both th­ese new films have re­ceived lauda­tory no­tices in the US, The End of the Tour par­tic­u­larly so. My col­league David Strat­ton has some fur­ther thoughts on this on the op­po­site page.

I can see how The End of the Tour would be a dif­fi­cult sell at a mar­ket­ing meet­ing. It’s about a sud­denly fa­mous nov­el­ist on a book tour, ac­com­pa­nied by an­other, lesser nov­el­ist who is in­ter­view­ing him for Rolling Stone mag­a­zine. It’s es­sen­tially a two-hour con­ver­sa­tion about life, love, self­hood, art high and low (Wal­lace was a tele­vi­sion ad­dict) — and I did not want it to end.

Watch­ing it made me sad, in a way I had not been be­fore, that this au­thor, who was patently some sort of ge­nius, is no longer with us. It’s been said Wal­lace’s writ­ing creates in the reader the sense of “be­ing David Foster Wal­lace’’. So it goes for Ja­son Segel’s tow­er­ing per­for­mance here. The phys­i­cal re­sem­blance is un­canny, but it’s the in­hab­i­ta­tion of the au­thor’s bril­liant and frag­ile mind that is most re­mark­able. It’s a role that needs a foil, and Jesse Eisen­berg, an ac­tor who makes such in­ter­est­ing choices, is a bril­liant one as jour­nal­ist-au­thor David Lip­sky.

The film is set in 1996, soon af­ter pub­li­ca­tion of Wal­lace’s 1000-page mas­ter­piece In­fi­nite Jest. The re­views are as­ton­ish­ing, so much so that Lip­sky, who had pub­lished a lit­er­ary novel of his own, is scep­ti­cal. There’s a de­ci­sive mo­ment when, on his girl­friend’s ad­vice, he sits down to read this ex­trav­a­gantly hyped novel. Af­ter a while he looks up and says qui­etly, “Shit.’’ It’s a scene that sets up what will be a un­easy, af­fect­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two men.

Lip­sky per­suades his ed­i­tor at Rolling Stone to let him write about Wal­lace, and heads to the au­thor’s home town of Bloom­ing­ton, Illi­nois, to join him on the road for a five-day tour to pro­mote the book. Wal­lace has agreed to be in­ter­viewed but he’s hard to read. He asks as many ques­tions as he an­swers. Lip­sky’s ed­i­tor, who con­sid­ers a story about a writer a du­bi­ous propo­si­tion, wants the juicy stuff: the au­thor’s near sui­cide at 28, the ru­mours of drug ad­dic­tion. “You’re not his best buddy. You’re a re­porter.’’

And so the two writ­ers cir­cle each other, at turns ad­mir­ing, anx­ious, sus­pi­cious, frus­trated, self-doubt­ing, un­cer­tain what each thinks of the other. “I don’t even know if I like you yet,’’ Wal­lace says early on, and then adds, his eyes so sad, “and I am so ner­vous about whether you like me.’’ Wal­lace comes across as such a deep thinker. He was of course but trans­lat­ing that to the screen is no mean achieve­ment. A dis­cus­sion they have about the na­ture of ge­nius is riv­et­ing — and then they talk about the Die Hard films, or Ala­nis Moris­sette.

There’s a lovely mo­ment, one of many, when Wal­lace is picked up by his driver (a per­fect Joan Cu­sack) for the Min­neapo­lis leg of the tour. “I may have to buy your book and read it,’’ she says perk­ily, just making con­ver­sa­tion. He smiles shyly. “Sorry about that.’’

The End of the Tour is a bit of a labour of love. Af­ter Wal­lace’s sui­cide in 2008, Lip­sky wrote a mem­oir, Al­though of Course You End Up Be­com­ing Your­self, on which this film is based, with a script by Pulitzer Prize-win­ning drama­tist Don­ald Mar­gulies. Di­rec­tor James Pon­soldt is a Wal­lace fan, as is Eisen­berg (who pub­lished a book of short sto­ries this year), and Segel, best known for the TV com­edy How I Met Your Mother, be­came one af­ter an in­ten­sive read­ing process. Whether they have read Wal­lace’s books or not, view­ers of this film may end up lov­ing him a lit­tle too. Ben Men­del­sohn’s des­per­ate gam­bler Gerry is hard to love in Mis­sis­sippi Grind. He’s a bad ex­hus­band and worse fa­ther, a liar and cheat, a weak man. There’s lit­tle of Men­del­sohn’s char­ac­ter­is­tic swag­ger here. “Some guys are born to lose,’’ he says, al­most philo­soph­i­cally.

It’s a meaty role and the late-blooming Aus­tralian star de­liv­ers an­other pow­er­house per­for­mance, one that swells with unar­tic­u­lated emo­tion. It’s the sort of turn that puts him, to quote an ir­re­sistible line from Amer­i­can critic Roger Ebert, “on the short­list of ac­tors who are more ex­cit­ing to watch when they’re sit­ting at a bar think­ing than most ac­tors are when they’re fir­ing ma­chine­guns at he­li­copters’’.

Like The End of the Tour, this is a road trip movie, though more vis­ceral than cere­bral. Hav­ing said that, it is full of psy­cho­log­i­cal in­trigue, its char­ac­ters keep­ing us guess­ing as to their real mo­ti­va­tions. This is ap­par­ent from the out­set, when Gerry has a meet­ing with Sam (Al­fre Woodard), who is sleek, sym­pa­thetic, sooth­ing. Is she his ad­dic­tion coun­sel­lor per­haps? No, she’s the loan shark to whom he owes a life-threat­en­ing amount.

But the real enigma is Cur­tis (a se­ri­ously good Ryan Reynolds), a hand­some, charis­matic fel­low gam­bler who be­friends Gerry over a lowrent card ta­ble in Dubuque, Iowa.

The two agree to travel down the Mis­sis­sippi, gam­bling along the way, to reach a sto­ried card game in New Or­leans, where Gerry will win back all he owes. At least that’s the plan

Cur­tis puts up the funds, and why he does so is tan­ta­lis­ingly un­cer­tain. He seems to be in­ter­ested not so much in the gam­bling as in help­ing his new friend out of trou­ble. But then there are mo­ments where pun­ish­ment seems to be on his mind. He thinks he may be in love with an on­a­gain, off-again girl­friend (Si­enna Miller).

Mis­sis­sippi Grind is di­rected by Anna Bo­den and Ryan Fleck, the team be­hind the out­stand­ing 2006 drama Half Nel­son, with Ryan Gosling as a drug-ad­dicted school­teacher. Like that film, this one de­fies easy expectations, right up to its strange (in a good way) end­ing. The blues sound­track is ex­cel­lent, too.

WATCH­ING IT MADE ME SAD, IN A WAY I HAD NOT BEEN BE­FORE

Ben Men­del­sohn and Ryan Reynolds roll the dice in Mis­sis­sippi Grind, left; Jesse Eisen­berg as David Lip­sky and Ja­son Segel as David Foster Wal­lace in The End of the Tour, be­low

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