David Stratton and Stephen Romei assess the latest releases
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