I always enjoy the annual Cucalorus Film Festival. Not just because it’s fun, crazy and there are a lot of great films, but because it’s a yearly reminder of how important it is, as film fans, to make sure our cinematic diet is a healthy balance of brain food and junk food. With the independent-film fires sufficiently stoked, I dove into two available OnDemand flicks to review this week: “Entertainment,” starring Gregg Turkington, and “The End of the Tour” with Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel.
Surprisingly, the two films complemented one another. There are similarities between each: both include characters trying to find a synchronicity lacking in their lives through artistic pursuits.
“Entertainment” is about an amateur-hour comedian, who plays small bars and prisons. on a dust-belt tour across the Southwest. They’re the kind of nightmare gigs that most up-and-comers find themselves having to endure while paying their dues. Gregg isn’t exactly an up-and-comer: He’s a middle-aged joke man with a toxic onstage persona. He’s the kind of setup-and-punchline performer that had its heyday in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He would be more comfortable on a dais at a Friar’s Club Roast, telling Phyllis Diller that she looked like a pirate hooker.
Gregg’s devotion to this off-putting character is impressive. On stage he’s a coughing, raspy voiced dispenser of insults. Off stage he’s a quiet, socially awkward guy who seems out of place in almost every social scenario. His commitment to his creation is equally puzzling since his act is so poorly received. The audiences are far more likely to heckle Gregg than laugh at any of his crude attempts at humor. Gregg’s life is a series of interconnected disappointments and cringe-inducing stage performances. It leaves audiences wondering what exactly keeps propelling his poor, tortured soul.
“The End of the Tour” takes us on a similar journey inside the motivations and machinations of late author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). After learning of his suicide, writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) recounts his memories of accompanying Wallace on a book tour through the Midwest for a piece in Rolling Stone. Lipsky is both fascinated by and jealous of Wallace, who has achieved the kind of fame and success for which every writer hopes. Lipsky’s own failed attempts as a novelist make him instantly skeptical of Wallace’s average-guy persona. Wallace is a writer with an incredible gift—both a blessing and a curse. He wants to be the kind of person who can enjoy the successes his labors have brought but struggles with the idea of being disingenuous. He’s the smartest guy in the room but doesn’t want to come across that way.
Lipsky’s envy is apparent. He’s in awe of Wallace’s talent but believes there has to be a flaw somewhere—that someone so successful, who has achieved so much brilliance, can’t possibly be the grungy looking, everyday guy he’s hanging out with. Wallace is a perpetual bundle of nerves, saddled with anxiety over how Lipsky’s article will portray him. He’s also battling depression, which makes every conversation difficult.
Eisenberg and Segel are both fantastic in the film and do a great job of bringing these characters to life. They have chemistry and wonderful rhythm and cadence. Initially viewers think Wallace and Lipsky are on opposite sides of the spectrum. Eisenberg plays Lipsky so tightly coiled and at first Segel’s portrayal of Wallace seems so far out. But Wallace and Lipsky are equally weighed down by the expectations of the world around them. In a way, both are prisoners of their own perceptions.
Like I said, there’s a lot of similarities between the two films: “Entertainment” is a movie about awkward silences. “The End of the Tour” is about awkward conversations. Both are road movies that take us inside the minds of troubled souls. Both are extremely intriguing independent fare. I think most people would enjoy “The End of the Tour” because of its more traditional aspirations. “Entertainment” is out there, in a good way. It’s a very odd movie that revels in peculiarities—the kind of film I half expect people to watch on my recommendation and declare, “What the hell did I just watch?” That’s not always a bad thing.