Sometimes films come out that we all see—but don’t record an episode on. When this happens, we often times still discuss them. Brian and Richard recently had an e-mail exchange regarding James Ponsoldt’s newest film, The End of the Tour.
Richard Bardon: So I come at this from the angle of a fan more than you probably do. David Foster Wallace (DFW), in a lot of ways (and certainly not uniquely) defined my early 20s. The novels, the journalism, the public persona were super interesting to me from the moment I started shaving (I started shaving around 23). It's hard for me to wrap my brain around this film critically because writers--like podcast hosts--are very intimate and actually live inside my brain. I was so happy to just see my friend DFW again (and not have to imagine him) that I came out of the theatre just insanely happy. I'd be interested in your more critical and measured eye to this film as a whole. What worked? And, more importantly, what didn't?
Brian Gill: You and I tend to come at things from a very similar positions (except for your undying love for Chandler Parsons). As such, it's always interesting when we have completely different viewpoints or, in this case, starting points. DFW was not on my radar until just before (or just after?) his death. I think I was too young to catch the initial Infinite Jest wave and too old for the second wave to have the kind of impact on me that it did with your kind (cardigan enthusiasts). I think I've read (or perhaps Cliff Notes-ed) Brief Interviews with Hideous Men but that memory has been replaced by the film version because I am, as you know, a John Krasinski Truther. That said, I see massive similarities between DFW and a person who had a comparable impact on my life: Kurt Cobain. Both incredibly talented, both geniuses in their own right, and both tragically tortured.
As far as the movie is concerned, you were quite right to recommend it as highly as you did. While I don't know DFW like you do, I found Jason Segel's portrayal to be borderline perfect, both as it pertains to DFW himself and the "type" as a whole. It's a humble, quiet performance that may unfortunately miss out on big award talk due to its lack of flair but we've seen a lot of (really good) films this year and how many performances have been better? One or two? He's fantastic. I wasn't quite as high on Eisenberg's work here as you were (elaborate, if you will) but that could easily be Now You See Me/Lex Luthor clouding my brain. More likely, I watched the movie on my home TV while doing other things and Segel's stuff was much easier to lock in on than Eisenberg's. I think this film is bound to find a spot on my top ten list (unless Krampus turns out to be even better than I expect!).
So how did Segel's portrayal hold up for a DFW fan and did the tone of the film strike the right chord?
Also I just accidentally watched 90 seconds of Two Broke Girls while writing this email and I fear I may have angered the spirt of DFW.
Richard Bardon: I suppose an attempted rebuttal to your various points and insults would carry more weight if I wasn't, at this very moment, wearing a brand new navy cardigan. Alas, I'll push on.
I like your DFW/Cobain reference. There's a lot of similarities there, for sure. The grunge aesthetic, the super-sensitive personality, the mental health issues. I've also always found similarities betweeen DFW and Eminem, surprisingly enough. I think their relationship with words and ideas were similar. Their brains pacing and racing to find every possible meaning of a phrase. And also, a super-sensitive personality.
RE: your point about Brief Interviews, that is actually the only book of Wallace's that I actively don't care for. It literally took me almost 9 years to complete it and it's not even that long. It never captured me. Is that movie any good? I've never sat down to watch it. I found the trailer off-putting (while I'm also a fan of Krasinski, I'm not to your level of lust).
Segel definitely captured what I imagine (and Youtube has shown me) DFW to be interpersonally. The wincing, the way he framed his ideas in really casually phrasing, and the posture all seemed pitch perfect. I just think Eisenberg had an even harder task because his character is written with a little more to do. DFW, in this film, is basically "I'm smarter than everyone when it comes to writing. I'm not smarter than everyone when it comes to life. I'm really just trying to be happy in a basic way. I'm going to kill myself in 12 years, and this will add pathos to things I'm saying now." Whereas Eisenberg has to be insanely jealous, but also insanely in awe of this great, great writer. There's a speed, wit, and love in his performance that I just found really affecting. It was as if J. Daniel Atlas put a spell on me and made me unable to remember the films of Eisenberg in recent years.
Sticking with Jesse, though. I know we hate on him for NYSM, Lex Luthor, and some other work. But isn't he putting together a pretty interesting career? Think about how many movies that this guy has done in the last 8 or 9 years that were either loudly fantastic performances or truly terrible films. He's also written some decently-received short stories and done some well-received theatre work.
I say all of this to say, is Jesse Eisenberg the real James Franco?
How do you feel about these type of films in general? The long conversation piece between 2 or 3 characters. This is definitely it's own genre with a new entry every few years (My Dinner w/ Andre comes to mind, and the Before Midnight series of films). I tend to love these type of pieces, but it's certainly a tightrope to walk. As a far better critic than me, what makes these work when they work?
Brian Gill: I'm actually quite jealous of your cardigan game. I lack the joie de vivre required to pull off such fashion articles. Also Nike doesn't make cardigans and I don't want to violate the exclusive Nike endorsement agreement I'm sure to receive in the future.
Brief Interviews was a fairly meh movie. Kind of your typical post-film school talkie. That material is better served, I think, on the stage over the screen. But Krasinski pulled in a great cast (I imagine because he is literally be nicest person in the entire world and everyone wants to work with him including me) and showed some flair behind the camera. He should probably do more of that and less "have terrible luck that routinely finds him taking roles that should be good but turn out to be a filmmakers worst effort ever."
I want to continue the Segel conversation for a minute, though. I've been a fan for a long time, back to his days on Freaks and Geeks (RIP) and the early years of How I Met Your Mother before that show Robert Ford-ed its audience. I've always been impressed with his comedic versatility; the ability to jump from Forgetting Sarah Marshall to The Muppets while serving as the grounding force behind a popular sitcom is something special. But I didn't know he had this kind of performance in him. I'm interested to see if this is the kind of thing we can expect from him moving forward or if this was such a personal performance that it's kind of like catching lightning in a bottle.
Regarding Eisenberg: He is very, VERY good at playing a certain type. I don't know that he has much range or the aforementioned versatility (the idea of him as Lex Luthor still makes me cringe) but when he's in his element, he can be excellent. To your point, he is fantastic in this, he deserved his Oscar nomination for Social Network, and Zombieland is one of the funniest movies of the past decade.
The problem is (and perhaps this is unfair projection) he seems like he's at his best when he's playing some version of himself and his self is kind of a tool. So if he's playing a tool and the script isn't great or his performance is lacking or it's just not a great movie, I immediately turn on him and the movie as a whole. He's just so stinking confident in his toolishness. For me, he may always be someone whose talent I respect but whose films I will never truly look forward to. And sometimes I'll be surprised, like I was here or like I will be when Now You See Me: The Second Act sweeps the Oscars.
Films like The End of the Tour, (mostly) two-person conversation pieces, occupy an odd space for me. I always enjoy them but I rarely seek them out. I think that's partly because I am, if nothing else, a "critic" for the common man and thus, I spend most of my movie watching time ingesting pop culturally-relevant films that my hypothetical audience cares about. But this is also an indictment of the limited release/art house theater process. I rarely have the occasion to see this type of film in a theater without driving 40 miles and any movie I watch at home usually gets between 60 and 70 percent of my ADD-riddled attention. I prefer to watch Insurgent (which is TERRIBLE) over My Dinner with Andre, despite knowing how far superior the latter is to the former, because I'm rarely able to just sit and watch a movie at home for two hours without getting distracted. So I get excited about these movies...and then I can't see them in a theater...and then I forget about them...and then when they finally are available to me, I think "Yeah but Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is also available so..." If more End of the Tour-like films were readily available at my local multiplex, I'd see far more of them and I'd love them, because when the chemistry is right, when the setting fits the characters, and when the writing allows the conversation to flow naturally, this is one of the more enjoyable film genres for me personally.
Talk to me about Infinite Jest. What makes it such a life changing (or defining?) book? And since this is a movie blog, is it filmable?
Richard Bardon: Well I guess I'll have to order another Cardigans R Us gift card for someone for Christmas.
I'll tackle your various interesting points in order:
Where and when did HIMYM fly off the rails for you? I watched the show in syndication exclusively, and enjoyed it, and was unaware of the notion of it pooping on its fan base.
I think Segel is capable of more of these performances and I think a lot of that was already apparent in Forgetting Sarah Marshall which I one of the rangier comedic performances of the last ten or so years. I still think he writes best for himself and I don't know why he stopped after the Muppets.
J. Daniel Atlas already stole the Academy Award envelope and put his name inside. It's already decided, my friend.
I don't think Jest is remotely filmable--though I'd be willing to give it a shot as guess who has the rights? Parks and Rec creator and noted DFW super-fan Michael Schur.
I assumed you'd like these type of films, I think the interview is a medium we share a love for and I wish it was portrayed on film more often. I loved the set up of this film, even if it wasn't DFW-specific.
Infinite Jest is just an insane tour de force that combines Wallace's humor, paranoia, grammarian/linguistics inclinations, and love of tennis into a singular narrative. I think the book is popular more for its force of intelligence than its plot. It's 3 separate but parallel stories about a tennis clinic, rehab clinic, and doomsday scenario that all tie together. Mostly, it discovered a type of novelistic voice that was previously unseen. For instance, the book has 200 pages of footnotes. This isn't an academic index either. It's notes on the text from the author. Basically, he's adding commentary and context as he writes. Like a pre-Wikipedia or genius.com. Flip through it next time you're at a bookstore, it's insane.
Brian Gill:There is a very good chance that my son (who is 2) will never set foot in a bookstore by his own choosing. He's ventured into Barnes and Noble with me a time or two but it's very likely that he'll never drive himself to a bookstore to browse. How sad is that?
The HIMYM trainwreck is almost untouchable in its awfulness. I loved that show for the first 4ish seasons, enjoyed it for the next 3, tolerated season 8, and wanted to fight anyone and everyone involved with it during the last season. It stopped being truly funny about halfway through its run but did a very good job of handling the serious issues of growing up (a death, a character discovering they couldn't have kids, etc.). The whole thing ran out of steam in maybe season 7 and they just kept dragging a rotting carcass around for 50 more episodes. The last season is unquestionably the worst last season of a long running sitcom ever. It would be like if The Office decided Jim should cheat on Pam with Meredith and then acted like that's what we were hoping for the whole time. It was basically the exact opposite of Parks and Rec's Victory Tour final season and it tainted the entire show. I feel dirty every time I catch a rerun now. DFW would've killed himself all over again if he'd been alive to see it. (I'll edit that joke out, that's just for you.)
This is just a superb movie, dude. Such a smarter way of presenting a true to life story without going the full, tired biopic route. The difficulty level is much higher on this than a standard biopic but if it works, like this does, you end up with an excellent product. End of the Tour fits pretty well with Steve Jobs and Love & Mercy as this year's examples of the way to build a better biopic. Loved it.