Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 0; Language 4; Sex /Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy.
…a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…
If you are going to retain the interest of an audience with a film 90% of which consists of two men talking with each other—no car chases, guns or fist fights, or steamy bedroom scenes–you better have a good script and two competent actors. Director James Ponsoldt has all of this, his script mainly by Pulitzer Prize winning Donald Margulies, and two actors, Jason Segel and Jesse Adam Eisenberg beautifully playing off each other. The story, based on Rolling Stone’s writer David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, takes place over the five days that Lipsky (Eisenberg) spent interviewing essayist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) during what turned out to be his last book tour in Minneapolis over a five-day period in 1996.
Wallace’s complex novel Infinite Jest, weighing in at over 3 lbs (1000+ pages, plus 388 endnotes), had been well received by most critics. According to the film it is Lipsky himself, apparently impressed by the work, who convinces his reluctant editor to send him to snow-covered Bloomington, Illinois for the interview. Wallace, looking like a big Teddy bear wearing a bandana over his scraggly hair and slouching around in rumpled sweats, is wary at first, but something about the younger writer apparently attracts him because he tells him he doesn’t want to stay at the motel, that he has a room for him.
The “guest room” turns out to be where the author stores stacks of his books, bed a mattress on the floor, and breakfast the next day turns out to be coffee and half a Pop Part. Noticing that his two dogs take to Lipsky, the novelist says that he enjoys being with dogs rather than a girlfriend because he fears hurting other people’s feelings, and that he avoids dating because “I wouldn’t know what to say.” This from a man who has written a 1,079-page novel!
Lipsky’s editor has asked him to find out if there is any truth to the rumor about the novelist having used heroin, but Wallace avoids this. “Television,” he says is his most damaging addiction, hence there is no TV set in his home. Throughout their exchanges Wallace is concerned with how he will be conceived by those who read the published article. He notes that there are many, very different ways it could turn out. It all depends on how an interviewer decides to arrange his notes. Lipsky writes down a great many, and also secures permission to record their sessions on his pocket cassette recorder. The two talk a lot about pop culture and writing. And at times some personal matters, Wallace at one time revealing his insecurity, “The more people say you’re really great, the more the fear of being a fraud is.”
Following the flight to Minneapolis, where they are met by professional greeter Patty (Joan Cusack), the two spar back and forth. The book reading/signing goes well, and at dinner Wallace introduces Lipsky to two friends living in the area, good friend Julie (Mamie Gummer) and Betsy (Mickey Sumner), a lover back in his college days. Afterward he accuses the interviewer of flirting with one of the girls, possibly because he has heard Lipsky talking over the phone with his lover (or wife?) Sarah (Anna Chlumsky). Relationships cool for a while, but soon they are talking back and forth again. At a later time they again almost reach a breaking point, especially with Lipsky trying to find out more about the rumored heroin addiction, even though he has found no sign of such in Wallace’s house. (He even looks through the medicine cabinet in the bathroom.) What turns out to be an awkward return to Wallace’s home and a parting ends warmly. Both realize that Wallace has arrived at the point in his career that Lipsky yearns for, the latter having published one novel that apparently went nowhere. Wallace, who fights against depression, is all too aware that success is not all that we think it will be.
Lipsky has packed a copy of his book in his bag, and as he prepares to leave hesitates, and then gives it to his host, who promises to read and give his thoughts on the book. We don’t know whether or not he did during the twelve years between this and his suicide in 2008, but we do know that the interview did not make it into the pages of The Rolling Stone—it would have been interesting if the film had revealed why. Nonetheless the five days were certainly worth Lipsky’s time, his book based on them appearing two years after the novelist’s death, and faring far better than his first novel. He has written, “Books are a social substitute; you read people who, at one level, you’d like to hang out with.” This movie also serves that function for us viewers, making us glad that we can hang out with two such interesting people.
There is great last image to add to my article “Celebration of Dance in Cinema” published in this June 2015 issue of VP. Toward the end of their time together Wallace says that he relaxes each week dancing. “Where?” Lipsky asks. “At the Baptist Church,” is the answer. I love it, the Baptist Church! And there, before the screen goes black, we see Wallace and a mixed group of adults having a great time dancing joyfully.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September 2015 issue of VP.