SUNDANCE 2015: PART THREE

Mississippi Grind

THE END OF THE TOUR  * * * 1 / 2

THE OVERNIGHT  * * 1 / 2

MISTRESS AMERICA  * * *

MISSISSIPPI GRIND  * * *

I had not planned on seeing The End Of The Tour. I’m no fan of director James Ponsoldt’s previous pictures, plus I’d heard rumblings that the Wallace estate is none too pleased about the project. Maybe I thought I’d already gotten my fill of Gen X icon suicides with the Cobain film, or maybe I just didn’t feel like watching Jason Segel play David Foster Wallace. But as happens sometimes at festivals, a scheduling snafu left my only options in a given time slot being either this or the new Joe Swanberg movie and it was too early to start drinking. So of course I saw The End Of The Tour.

And I’m glad I did. Short of an unfortunate, vaguely exploitative framing device, it’s otherwise an extremely thoughtful and perceptive exploration of power dynamics within the patently false setting of a celebrity interview. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky, an unsuccessful novelist in his own right travelling with Wallace for the last few days of Infinite Jest’s promotional tour, as the seismic impact of sudden superstardom was just starting to sink in.

What we have here is two very smart guys talking around each other for a couple of hours, each trying to negotiate their roles in what’s essentially a transactional relationship. Is Wallace’s slobby, junk-food eating, regular schmo persona a cultivated act to make others feel comfortable in the presence of a genius? The perfectly cast Eisenberg is seething with envy and also desperate for his literary hero’s approval, not the best position to be coming from when contractually required to pick at the scabs of a troubled past for a few million magazine readers. I didn’t think Jason Segel had this kind of performance in him, and The End Of The Tour is one of those cases where I am very pleased to have been wrong.

I guess it wouldn’t be a film festival without Jason Schwartzman playing a pompous ass, and so we have Jason Brice’s frothy, entertaining-enough The Overnight.  This one-joke movie (it’s a pretty good joke) stars Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling as a couple of stick-in-the-mud suburbanites who just relocated to an unfamiliar city. Their kids end up on a playdate with the spawn of a kooky, self-consciously bohemian duo (Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche) and things slowly slide into a sleepover party for the grownups, too.

It’s a slender conceit stretched out about as far as it can go, with Schilling suspecting something’s up while Scott remains cheerfully oblivious to their host couple’s true intentions. A pair of prosthetic penises got all the press after the premiere, but Schwartzman is the real MVP, finding a cuddlier, more endearing register for his abrasive affectations. I laughed way too loud at him pronouncing “France” as if it rhymes with “Ponce.”

After making a dyspeptic trilogy of films about how much he hated his father (The Squid And The Whale), his mother (Margot At The Wedding) and himself (Greenberg), Noah Bambuach has developed a much sunnier sensibility ever since shacking up with his new muse and collaborator Greta Gerwig. (Hey, I’d be in a good mood too.) Mistress America, like their flighty Frances Ha from a couple years back, is another stylized featherweight comedy with a loopy Gerwig performance at the center.

This one takes a little while to get rolling, as Lola Kirke’s lonely college freshman reaches out to her older, soon-to-be-stepsister (Gerwig), living a wild and messy artist’s life in New York City. But all good things must come to an end, and now careening toward thirty the It Girl’s freewheeling ways are starting to look a lot less adorable.

The two leads speak past each other in staccato, machine-gun non sequitors, but the film didn’t take off for me until about halfway through, when Mistress America settles into a single location where Baumbach and Gerwig begin playing a game of screwball Jenga — seeing how many side characters and subplots they can pile on top of each other within any given shot before the whole thing collapses. Depending on your mood and sensibility you’ll find this either effervescent or annoying as hell.

Something of return to form for Half Nelson and Sugar writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck after the misbegotten It’s Kind Of A Funny Story, Mississippi Grind is being touted as an homage to Robert Altman’s California Split. I’m going to have to call their bluff on that one (sorry, couldn’t resist) because for all intents and purposes this is a straight-up remake of California Split… like, right down to some of the exact same scenes.

A remarkable, rumpled Ben Mendelsohn stars in the George Segal role as a shy, compulsive gambler quietly ruining his life at low stakes tables. Ryan Reynolds is quite unexpectedly delightful in the Elliott Gould part of his swaggering, good-time new pal, and these two go on a picaresque road trip aiming to bet everything on one big game. It takes some cajones to try and mimic one of the greatest films of the 1970’s, but a James Toback cameo helps. And as it turns out, I love California Split so much I didn’t mind watching it again.

As usual, Boden and Fleck are especially adept at conveying a specific sense of place, and they’re patient enough to let their actors really sink into scenes. The half a dozen endings push it a bit into Lord Of The Rings territory, but my only real complaint is that their somewhat detached perspective lacks the original’s reeling euphoria. Mississippi Grind is a perfectly fine movie from people who have given a lot of thought to gamblers. Altman’s classic was made by one.

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