REVIEW: The End of the Tour

16 08 2015

The End of the TourThe celebrity interview in fiction is something that often gets fetishized, probably because it is so frequently fantasized.  I have done a few myself, and it can be tough not to get carried away just by breathing the rarefied air of a talented artist.  Rationalize the experience away as journalism, but that does not do justice to the nature of the interview.

It’s a transaction.  An exchange of goods disguised as an exchange of words.  A delicate dance. Chuck Klosterman, in his excellent book “Eating the Dinosaur,” offered a deft explanation of just how these performances work.  “The result (when things go well),” he wrote, “is a dynamic, adversarial, semi-real conversation.”

The End of the Tour” makes a movie out of a journalistic conversation for the ages, a battle of wits on a more even playing field than usual.  Jesse Eisenberg plays David Lipsky, a minimally successful novelist who pays the bills for his aspirations of fiction writing by penning non-fictional articles for Rolling Stone. Somehow, he convinces his boss to let him go on assignment to profile another writer, the first time the magazine dares to feature a wordsmith in over a decade.

Lipsky’s subject is no average writer, though. He tags along with David Foster Wallace, played by Jason Segel, at the last stop of his 1996 book tour for “Infinite Jest,” a thousand-page tome that reaps hyperbolic praise and adulation. After publishing such a novel, a kind of literary legend status extended to very few authors looms on the horizon.

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REVIEW: Welcome to Me

8 05 2015

Welcome to MeSeeing as how she got her start on “Saturday Night Live,” Kristen Wiig is certainly no stranger to satire.  While her work on that topical comedy show often brilliantly pointed out human error and ridicule, most of it pales in comparison to her scathingly incisive new film, “Welcome to Me.”  Eliot Laurence’s script cuts deep to probe some of our society’s deepest insecurities and fears.

He pinpoints that these collective anxieties find assuaging in the self-help gospel preached by daytime talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey.  Take away the free car giveaways, though, and the program really just sold herself as a product.  (Who other than Oprah has ever graced the cover of O Magazine?)  “Welcome to Me” takes this narcissism to its logical extreme, following Wiig’s Alice Klieg as she uses her millions in lottery earnings to mount a show about her, for her.

Her talk show/broadcasted therapy session is not made by her, however.  To get on the air and look impressive, Alice requires the talents of producers at a local television studio.  At Live Alchemy, she finds the perfect blend of dead airspace, crushing company debt, and morally bankrupt executives willing to indulge her every desire.

Led by the slimily obsequious Rich (James Marsden), the station caters to each of Alice’s increasingly bizarre whims, even when they cross the line into literal slander and figurative self-flagellation.  It’s not hard to imagine similar board room meetings taking place at E! debating the Kardashian family.  Alice suffers from a clinically diagnosed personality disorder and manifest her symptoms rather clearly, yet no employee seems willing to protect her from herself so long as the checks keep cashing.  Consider it a less violent first cousin to “Nightcrawler” (or dare I even say, the golden goose that is “Network”).

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 22, 2011)

22 07 2011

Director Will Gluck has made two hilarious movies in “Easy A” and “Friends with Benefits.” The two share quite a few things in common, but one not-so-flattering similarity I noticed was a slightly unfavorable portrayal of homosexuals. In “Easy A,” Dan Byrd’s gay teen Carter participates in an elaborate subterfuge with Emma Stone’s Olive in order to convince the masses that he is heterosexual. In “Friends with Benefits,” Woody Harrelson’s Vogue editor plays a one-note gay character that is totally defined on screen by his homosexuality. (He does get a slight pass, however, because the character is supposedly based on the president of Screen Gems.)

While I certainly don’t consider Glick a hateful person who would deliberately reinforce negative stereotypes, cinema has seen better, more respectful portrayals. Dwelling on my observations, I couldn’t shake one movie from my mind that handles homosexuality with decency: “In & Out,” Frank Oz’s 1997 comedy. It’s a funny, touching movie that hits on some big issues without every feeling preachy or activist, and as such, it is my pick for the “F.I.LM. of the Week.”

A high concept comedy rooted in reality, namely in imagining the fallout of Tom Hanks’ Oscar acceptance speech for “Philadelphia,” the movie follows small-town professor Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline), unintentionally outed by his Academy Award-winning former pupil (Matt Dillon) … on the week before he is about to marry his longtime girlfriend Emily (Joan Cusack).  He expects it all to blow over quickly since his marriage should be proof enough that he is straight.  Yet his sexuality is relentlessly scrutinized everyone and is only amplified by the presence of press and the prejudices of the town.  Howard is forced to confront the idea that the facade he projects to the world is just that, and Oz finds humor in his self-examination every step of the way.

When watching “In & Out,” you have to remember this came before “The Kids Are All Right,” before “Milk,” and even before “Brokeback Mountain” made gay issues a mainstream conversation topic.  It was considered very bold at the time and still retains some of that power today.  It’s relevance is due largely in part to its very level-headed perspective, most clearly articulated in its conclusion.  Sexuality is not what defines our identities, and this is what I think “Easy A” and “Friends with Benefits” seemed to be missing.  Our identity should be defined by our character, and “In & Out” glorifies this to the highest level.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 2, 2010)

2 07 2010

This week’s “F.I.L.M.” is Nicole Holofcener’s probing social comedy “Friends with Money.” If you look at the poster and see Jennifer Aniston and instantly think, “This movie is going to be stupid,” be prepared to think twice. It’s an incredibly, perhaps surprisingly, deep look at the effects of money and social class on four friends in Los Angeles. It rounds all the bases, touching on all the big issues that an obsession with money can bring.

Jane (Frances McDormand) is a successful fashion designer who is perhaps the most money-driven of the bunch. She unabashedly and unashamedly asks people about how much money they make, how much they are donating, and how much they spend. Whether it’s because of her crumbling marriage or potentially entering menopause, she has become increasingly frank and short-tempered.

Franny (Joan Cusack) is a trust fund baby living comfortably with her husband and child. She’s a little shy talking about how much money she has, largely because of its source.

Christine (Catherine Keener) is a television writer, teamed with her husband (Jason Isaacs). Giddy from the rush of money, she decides to expand their house upwards to see the ocean without considering its effect on her neighbors. But marital frustrations begin to take its toll on her work; however, they also open her eyes to how her actions have unexpectedly affected the world around her.

Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) is their idea of a charity case friend. She’s quit her job as a teacher to become a maid. She’s single and hasn’t had a steady boyfriend in years. She still smokes pot and wanders through life with no direction or sense of purpose.

Each of the women undergoes a metamorphosis over the course of the movie’s 88 minutes. Holofcener creates four wonderfully elaborate women whose stories unfold before our very eyes. The character study is incredibly effective and entertaining, largely due in part to the wittiness of the script.

But the movie is carried by the actresses, all of whom give wonderful performances. Joan Cusack plays nothing new – the mildly insecure but ultimately warmhearted woman – but it’s a comfortable territory for her and thus comfortable for us to watch. Catherine Keener undergoes one of the movie’s biggest transformations, and she nails it with her typical pitch-perfect grace. Frances MacDormand is absolutely hysterical as she speaks her mind with no filter.

And bring on the puzzled looks – the star of “Friends With Money” is Jennifer Aniston. Her Olivia is by far and away the film’s most complicated character, and in the hands of Aniston, she is completely realized. We can buy every move she makes and feel the emotion behind each line. All you Jennifer Aniston haters out there, watch this movie. You may not be silenced, but it should shut you up for a little while.