31 August 2015

The Writer and the Stoned CIA Agent

Last Saturday, I saw Jesse Eisenberg play a real-life Rolling Stone writer and a stoned CIA assassin. It just so happened that Eisenberg, best known for his Oscar nominated turn as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, was starring in two new movies, both released here in Knoxville, last week. The two films in question could not be more different from each other. The two performances given by Eisenberg, likewise, could not be more different. My opinions of each, like the films and performances, could, once more, not be more different. It sort of sucks in a way because I really thought I would love both.

The End of the Tour
Dir. James Ponsoldt

★★★★ out of ★★★★

In The End of the Tour, Eisenberg stars as Rolling Stone feature writer and sometimes novelist, David Lipsky, who, like many other New York academics in the mid-90s, found himself obsessed with another writer, a decided genius named David Foster Wallace. In 1996, Wallace published the mammoth, mind-bending monstrosity Infinite Jest, a novel that made him a literary superstar overnight and put him in the same conversation as other such genius writers like Thomas Pynchon. Having just published a novel himself, to no acclaim whatsoever, Lipsky reluctantly read Wallace's work--a read that would put him face to face with his own pride and envy and most certainly change his life forever. 

So obsessed was David Lipsky with Infinite Jest and the idea of David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) that he begged for an assignment to spend five days with the writer on the final leg of his book tour. This five days would eventually be recounted, after Wallace's 2008 suicide, in a book by Lipsky called Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which is essentially a transcript of the conversations he and Wallace had on the road those five days. 

Screenwriter Donald Margulies and director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) were faced with quite a task, for how difficult is it to take a couple of dudes talking and make it play as a movie? They succeeded quite admirably. 

Consider the subtlety with which the film crafts small moments and then brings them back around. While packing for his trip to Wallace's wintry midwestern home, Lipsky grabs a copy of his own novel, The Art Fair, among a stack of four copies. The plan, of course, being to reluctantly hand Wallace a copy. After their first encounter, and a run out to get a bite at a diner and some junk food at a convenience store amidst conversation about action movies, Wallace asks Lipsky to just stay in his spare room. His spare room contains stacks upon stacks upon boxes of copies of Infinite Jest. Lipsky just stares into the ceiling, this room of gigantic stacks of copies of this gigantic masterwork towering over him. This was no accident and is totally telling in what kind of relationship the two will have. 

As played by Jason Segel, Wallace seems a train wreck, a man fully knowing that great fame is soon to befall him. He doubles back and contradicts himself and acts as if he doesn't want the fame, but then at the same time is so cocksure in his own brilliance as to tell a fan that he'd rather sign a copy of Infinite Jest because it's "better" than his older work. 

Segel's work is incredible. It's hard to make an actor as odd-looking as Segel disappear. He makes it happen. He doesn't really look like Wallace, so the costume helps, but the oddness one would expect of such a reclusive genius comes through. Wallace was a man so fully aware of his own faults, fully introspective, a guy who downs diet sodas and smokes cigarettes and dips tobacco but refuses to acknowledge that he once had a drug problem. 

Likewise, Eisenberg is great here as well, playing his familiar sort-of nervous, twitchy guy that audiences took to so well in his big role in Noah Baumbach's 2005 film The Squid and the Whale. Though, as Lipsky, Eisenberg has a confidence that is quite enjoyable to watch. In him, we see ourselves, the everyman wishing for just one second he could have what this other guy has, which is something this other guy has but doesn't really want. 

As the two talk and talk and talk, we get a sense of what their games are. We come to know them through mannerism and tone of voice and facial expression, and we truly care whether or not they like or respect each other. The conversations between Lipsky and Wallace should be studied. I plan to. They are intellectual and then not. They are funny and then not. They contain moments of every emotion.

The End of the Tour is made for me. I love writers and writing and have this urge to read the "unreadable," as many have claimed Infinite Jest to be. I plan on reading it now, or trying to read it. I love the way this film, in Ponsoldt's trust of these two actors, creates familiar feelings of admiration and competition in such low-key subtle ways. It is decidedly true to life in that way. And one of my favorite movies of the year so far. 

American Ultra
Dir. Nima Nourizadeh

★★ out of ★★★★

In American Ultra, Jesse Eisenberg plays a character I have literally never seen on screen before. It is a performance that, quite simply, deserves a more subtle film. Too bad James Ponsoldt doesn't direct action movies. A softer touch would have done this movie better. 

I say that as a guy who really dug the violence in this film. And, man, is this movie violent! I was so not expecting that. And there are a lot of that moments here. It's not the violence that needed toning down. No. It's the stupidity. 

Watching American Ultra, I was struck with a desire for it to just be more ironic. It's not clever at all. The action scenes are clever as hell. But the CIA backdrop needed something way less ridiculous. We have seen the Bourne movies. Why not have this character work for that CIA, one that seems real. That's all this movie would have needed to be great. It is so not great. 

Mike Howell (Eisenberg) is a burnout with a fear of flying. In fact, for some reason, he can't ever leave his small West Virginia town, where he works as a convenience store clerk and gets stoned with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). When a weasel-y CIA suit played by Topher Grace decides to wipeout the secret project of his colleague Agent Lasseter (Connie Britton), she takes it upon herself to "activate" stoned Mike. When his assassins arrive, he does things with a spoon and a Cup-O-Noodles that will quite possibly make you spray your Coca-Cola across the theater. 

Yes. There are some big laughs here. There are some amazingly well-crafted fights and action sequences. Hell. I even liked Kristen Stewart here and found her to be perfectly suited to this role. She and Eisenberg have a real chemistry, as evidenced in Greg Mottola's 2009 film Adventureland. She should work with him as much as possible. 

What this movie gets so wrong is in how it takes something as real and serious as the CIA and makes it into a total sideshow, quite literally. Not one element seems likely. I would've enjoyed the far-fetched action so much more had this film been more of a send-up of something like The Bourne Identity, which I think might have been the intent, instead of an amped-up action farce. American Ultra is a film with an identity crisis and no sense of reality. It needed to be grounded in the real world to work. It takes place in a world it wants us to take seriously, I felt, and it just plain failed. 


  1. Very glad to read all the praise for The End of the Tour. Can't wait to see it and Segel's performance.

    1. It is wonderful, man. I really loved it.

  2. I am definitely looking forward to End of Tour, though I have a feeling it's going to be heartbreaking. I will come back and read your reviews in detail after I see that movie. :-)

    1. It is heartbreaking. And profound. And subtle. And really perfect. Please do come back.