A24 learned the hard way how tough (and expensive) an Oscar campaign can be when they launched J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year” at November’s AFI FEST at the height of awards madness. They didn’t do badly, garnering superb reviews, Best Film and Best Actor and Supporting Actress nods from the National Board of Review, and Critics Choice, Indie Spirit and Golden Globe supporting actress nominations for Jessica Chastain, but came up empty on Oscar nominations morning. That attention helped to swell the film’s box office to a decent $5.5 million domestic, but the question always is, was it worth what they spent?
Eisenberg plays the alert and slightly envious novelist Lipsky opposite lanky Segel as Wallace, who fought depression and resisted fame until he took his own life in 2008. Lipsky told me at Sundance that he was relieved at the time that the interview was never published, as other things came up and pushed it aside. The movie opens as Lipsky hears of Wallace’s death, unearths the tapes and puts fresh batteries into his Sony Tape Recorder (the same model I still own). The journalism rings true, as do the debates between two wily writers. Segel says the movie is like the trajectory of a relationship as they first meet, start to know each other, get comfortable, then intimate, then angry, and break up. They never met again.
The David Foster Wallace estate has not endorsed the film on the grounds that the author would never have approved such a fictionalized portrait. The movie boasts a superb awards-worthy screenplay by American playwright Donald Margulies, who interviewed Lipsky and felt that the memoir lent itself to a cinematic road movie set in the American landscape more than a stage play. The trick was to streamline five days of talking into a seamless narrative. Margulies was Ponsoldt’s professor in college and reached out to him with the adaptation.
“To me it became a universal story of artists who struggle and achieve and the conundrum of success,” Margulies said at Sundance. “I saw in Dave and David a kind of doppleganger, two very bright complicated guys bumping up against each other. And encapsulated in those days was friendship, competition, so many conflicting things about the nature of art and the creation of art and the publicizing of art.”
Wallace-phile Ponsoldt delivered on the details, helping his cast to parse what they were saying and why. “The Muppets” writer-producer-actor Jason Segel gives a brilliant awards-worthy performance as Wallace, unlike any other he has given before. Both he and Eisenberg showed up on set very prepared, Segel told me in a flipcam interview.
Segel is aware that he is hardly typecast in this role. He and his costar enjoyed the level of tennis they were playing, which helped to up their game. Segel organized a “book club with three great book dorks” to read “Infinite Jest” together, but while he digs the author, it is not necessary to know Wallace’s work to understand what the movie is about. “He touches on some universal human feelings,” Segel said, “so I tried to pay attention to the parts of us that are the same.” The film asks: Don’t we all wonder, when we have achieved a life goal and gain praise, money or fame, if this is what it’s all about? What is that hollow feeling?