This was yet another movie suggested by several lists of films we missed in 2015, and although I don’t normally enjoy biopics, my watchlist is dwindling so I decided to give it a shot.
Now, a disclaimer: I haven’t read Infinite Jest, nor was I familiar with either David Foster Wallace or Dave Lipsky; I guess Wallace’s breakthrough novel never really acquired much notoriety in my country – plus my freshman year at university kept me plenty busy to take on a 1,000 page book for leisure. Similarly, Lipsky’s book on Wallace flew under my radar in 2008, and really would have held no interest for me anyway.
So I went in with no preconceptions or expectations, which turned out to be a good thing in this case.
As many reviews have pointed out, this movie is not for everyone. That’s not to say that if you’re not a Wallace (or Lipsky) fan, you won’t enjoy it; but it’s basically a film about two people exchanging witticisms and nuggets of philosophy, and I can see how audiences might be turned off by the constant back and forth.
What keeps you engaged but also potentially alienates you are exactly those existential quips; they are what’s so intriguing about the two main characters, but also what sets them apart from the ordinary guy (or gal). Phrased succinctly, if not quite unrealistically so, the rapid-fire dialogue offers a lot of insight into the way their minds work, but also deliberately paints them in a light that is less than subtle when it comes to portraying their above-average intelligence. Their obvious brilliance is often overshadowed by their pissing contest as they try to outsmart each other while discussing even the most mundane details of their lives, and it quickly becomes tedious rather than enthralling.
The movie takes great pains to illustrate Lipsky’s envy of Wallace’s success, which is the one thing that adds some humanity to the character. Maybe it’s Eisenberg’s performance, which is pretty much the same in every single movie I’ve seen him in, or maybe it’s the contrast between him and Segel, who is truly excellent in the role. Whatever it is that bugs me about Lipsky’s character, his journalistic approach is too annoying to feel any empathy for the guy, and the ending of the movie wraps up the story too abruptly to redeem him in my eyes.
In the end, the film is as much about Lipsky as it is about Wallace, if not even more so. We learn about Wallace by observing his effect on Lipsky’s world view, culminating in the movie’s epilogue. Except it’s not a gradual process, nor are its effects immediate after the five days the two spent together during the last leg of Wallace’s book tour in 1996. What’s more, we see Wallace through Lipsky’s eyes, and, at least in this case, he’s not the most objective of writers – or the most professional of journalists, for that matter.
If you want to be cynical about it, it’s a story about a guy whose first novel kind of flopped, and who spent 12 whole years in anonymity before grabbing the opportunity to make it big by recounting his time spent with Wallace after his untimely death in ’08. We don’t know if he gained something from his experience throughout those twelve years; we just see how tremendously he felt its effect after revisiting his old tapes from that unpublished interview.
It’s not a bad film, of course, but I failed to see the brilliance everyone raves about. As it is, the plot was non-existent and the character development insufficient. The whole movie relied on dialogue, which had a Sorkin quality about it in terms of coming off as pretentious. I thought the chemistry between the two characters was off and their performances a bit uneven, with Segel basically carrying Eisenberg throughout the film. Had I gone in expecting some life-changing lesson by way of an inciting incident that never happened, I would have been disappointed; likewise if I’d expected significant revelations about Wallace and his eccentric personality.
Maybe if I read Infinite Jest and come back to it I’ll find it immensely satisfying to learn more about the man behind the book. Having just watched it, going in as a blank slate, it felt indulgent and a bit flat.