This was my third consecutive weekend in a row where I visited the Portland Art Museum so I could catch yet another film in all seven films they are showing honoring one of the greatest American cinematic auteurs – Paul Thomas Anderson. I’ve always considered “Punch-Drunk Love” to be somewhat of a minor work in the filmography of this undeniably talented and incredibly influential writer/director’s. Maybe, because at the time of its release, it seemed like a rather odd shift in direction for the director who was coming off the powerhouses of his three previous works – 1995’s “Hard Eight” (a.k.a “Sydney), 1997’s “Boogie Nights”, and 1999’s “Magnolia” (the latter two films as mentioned in previous reviews are up there in my top 10 films of all time). So coming off one of the strongest one, two, three debut punches of almost any other director I can think of in history. To say they would be hard acts to follow would be a grave understatement. That, and the casting of the then still funny Adam Sandler as the lead, whose previous work had only been in comedy, seemed to be a rather strange casting choice. Anderson still to this day when reflecting back on the film says “it was and will be the only art film ever starring Adam Sandler”. And while I remember liking the movie when it initially came out I can’t necessarily say I loved it, especially in comparison to the two films that preceded it. Though I still went into it feeling an almost moral duty or obligation to see it as part of this ongoing retrospective of the director. Because I, as do many others, feel that it’s incredibly important to look at a director’s entire body of work. Especially with writer-directors that I admire and hold in such high regard as someone like Anderson.
The story itself revolves around Barry Egan (Adam Sandler). He’s a single man who his self-employed and owns his own business selling novelty items. He has seven rather overbearing sisters, who we’re introduced to via telephone at the beginning of the film. Barry is a lonely guy, who one night decided to call a phone sex line and is put on with a girl named “Georgia” (drawing up comparisons to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” (1993) ). He winds up getting himself caught up in a scam, and Georgia and her shady, sleazy business partner (played in a small part but a scene stealing Philip Seymour Hoffman). Barry is overwhelmed with stress as a result of it. All the while thinking he may have found a loophole in a Healthy Choice promotion that offers frequent flyer miles (lifted from a true life story). Just when Barry couldn’t possibly be any more down on his luck in walks the beautiful (and very talented) Emily Watson’s character, Lena. The two fall for one another under some rather strange circumstances and well, the rest of the picture more or less focuses on how two people, who couldn’t be more different from one another, and under strange circumstances, fall madly in love.
“Punch-Drunk Love” is certainly far from being Anderson’s best work. But even as a standalone film, it’s a uniquely strange, bizarre, and often times funny one. It’s also the first film in Anderson’s oeuvre where he begins to branch off from his previous style and work and shift into new forms of storytelling. Which in looking at a director’s body of work, I think is the one of the most important parts – the ability to keep things refreshing and original while staying true to your craft. I remember at the time of its release thinking that as much as I loved his two films prior, I wished that his next piece would be a little something different from the ensemble driven dramas that Anderson had mastered and built his career on up to that point. And boy this couldn’t be any different from anything he had done to date at that point. Sandler puts in a rather impressive performance as a man constantly on edge who mind you also has a very (and I mean very) bad temper mixed in with aggression problems (providing some of the film’s funniest and classic moments). It utilizes his comedic talents rather well but placing him in a role with a bit more of a dramatic turn. And surprisingly he pulls it off quite nicely. But what was striking to me this time around as how great of job Anderson does at shifting into unfamiliar terrain and pulls off a rather charming, heartfelt, and well polished love story with a lot of heart. It’s a minor work in the scope of Anderson’s seven films to date. But even despite its minor flaws (it never really “takes off”) it still is an impressive take on what we know to be the American romantic comedy.
The next film of the weekend was the newly released “The End Of The Tour” starring Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel. Despite my not being too particularly fond of the film’s two leads (I really only liked Eisenberg in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) and David Fincher’s “The Social Network). Segel I’ve liked in a handful of work like in his earlier TV series “Freaks and Geeks” (1999), “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2007), “I Love You Man” (2009) and still my favorite of his – “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” (2011). But after watching a trailer that piqued my interest mixed in with the based on a true life story that took place between Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Eisenberg) and famed author David Foster Wallace (Segel), who Lipsky gets put on assignment to interview the rather eccentric and immensely popular literary writer Wallace. It struck me as something that quickly caught my interest especially after seeing that it opened to rave reviews among critics, I thought it would be a great choice for my movie meetup group as it looked like something that had the potential to appeal to all tastes.
To expand on the brief synopsis of the film I hinted at above. We are first introduced to the up-and-coming, young, 30-year old Lipsky. A Rolling Stone journalist whose bogged down with covering stories he just doesn’t seem interested in and is looking for his big break. That big break comes when he is employed to cover an assignment where he would be invited into famed writer David Foster Wallace’s world for five days as he wraps up the end of his speaking tour advertising his new book that would go on to be his most popular and greatest literary achievement – ‘Infinite Jest’. Lipsky gets complete and total access to Wallace life and covers his day-to-day life through a series of candid interviews as they embark on the last few remaining stops on Wallace’s book tour. That’s essentially the film’s set up, as it becomes sort of “buddy road trip drama” that gives us insight into the world of one of the most famous and successful American authors of the 1990’s.
“The End of the Tour” sheds light on the literary world with what feels must have been a well researched story in recreating what it must have been like for its two central main characters during this short period in time. What I liked most about the picture was its take on the nature of celebrity, particularly with Wallace’s character, but as the journalist Lipsky spends more and more time with the beloved author. They begin to form a special kind of bond and friendship which comes across as totally natural and convincing, with each of its two leads taking up almost frame within the film, and their chemistry felt both relatable and authentic. Jason Segal puts on what’s probably his best real performance to date, as the bandana wearing, long-haired, unshaven author Wallace. It’s a rather impressive performance from an actor, who similarly to Adam Sandler in “Punch-Drunk Love”, shows that Segel can do drama and not just comedy like his cohort. It’s a believable and transformative role for Segel that shows he has quite a bit of range as a dramatic actor. Eisenberg on the other hand, feels out-of-place and miscast, and at least to me, plays the shaky, anxiety-ridden, unsure of himself character that he seems to become typecast in almost all of the work I’ve seen him in post-“Social Network”. Also, unlike Segel’s transformation into getting Wallace’s look and mannerisms down, Eisenberg looks exactly like he always does. And both my fellow movie meetup fans and I agreed and wondered, did he change anything outside of his usual persona and acting abilities to play this role? Well, it didn’t seem like it. Also, there’s some great in-depth, introspective talks that go on throughout the course of the film that play out almost like an homage to the great “Before Trilogy” films directed by Richard Linklater. Sure we get some great insight into the minds of the great writer and journalist, but at least to me, while I admired its exploration into them. It just felt a little too slight and somber throughout the entirety of its duration, sort of how I felt about Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” (which I liked but thought it to be very average). And that’s more or less similar to how I would up feeling about this film. For fans of literature who are familiar with author David Foster Wallace and his rise to fame and unwanted celebrity, you might like this film a bit more than I did. But despite the impressive turn by Segel, it wound up being a slightly above average dialogue driven talk fest with plenty of insight, but just not enough feeling.