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Sundance 2015: 'Mississippi Grind' and 'The End of the Tour' are two for the road

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There’s a specific internal logic that governs road movies. Two characters—it is almost always just two—vibe off one another in the confined space of a car, revealing essential selves, embarking on what’s inevitably a journey of self-discovery, moving ever forward, together.

The genre has become something of a Sundance trope over the years, thanks to movies such as Transamerica, Liar’s Dice and The Trip to Italy. And living up to that expectation, two of the buzzier entries in the fest’s early days happen to feature duos traveling for extended periods in cars on, yes, you guessed it, journeys of self-discovery.

Mississippi Grind focuses on a pair of gamblers who meet at a nickel-and-dime poker game in Iowa before taking it on the road. Ben Mendelsohn (The Dark Knight Rises, Animal Kingdom) is Gerry, a flat-tire of a man washed up on the shoals of midlife with a crushing gambling addiction and loan shark debt to his eyeballs. When he meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a loose-limbed charisma machine fond of making grand pronouncements such as “The journey is the destination” and “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” Gerry believes he’s found good luck incarnate. They impulsively decide to travel down the Mississippi River in a beat-up Subaru, gambling at riverboat casinos and back-room betting parlors from Dubuque to New Orleans, where a high-stakes poker game (and Gerry’s expected financial salvation) awaits.

The movie makes better use of Reynolds’ chummy bro bonhomie than perhaps anything he’s ever been in. Mendelsohn, meanwhile, crystallizes the fevered dreaming and flop sweat that dictates the lives of diehard amateur gamblers. And on that level, Mississippi Grind works almost as a gambling addiction procedural.

“We wanted to make a classic, ‘70s-style road picture,” the movie’s co-director Ryan Fleck said after the screening Saturday afternoon.

The two protagonists in the talky biodrama The End of the Tour take to the highway for altogether different reasons. Based on David Lipsky’s memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, the film features Jason Segel as acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky, the Rolling Stone journalist sent to profile the author—who had then exploded into public consciousness with his 1,079-page literary bestseller Infinite Jest—on the final leg of Wallace’s 1996 book tour.

Segel has maintained a healthy career by playing variations of the same character: a lovable man-child doofus. And until now, his bravest performance was arguably doing full-frontal nudity in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. But in The End of the Tour (directed by James Ponsoldt, whose last film, The Spectacular Now, also debuted at Sundance), Segel is a revelation.

His Wallace is a fully inhabited character: a lumbering recluse with a piercing, laser-quick intellect. A guy who, in the course of a single conversation, would be apt to footnote his thoughts and qualify the act of conducting an interview with meta-narrative gusto, all while spouting beautifully worded profundities almost as an afterthought. “There were a lot of interviews [with Wallace] that I got to watch and listen to,” Segel explained after the movie’s Friday premiere. “And I read and I read and I read. I started a book club in the little town that I live in outside of LA with three really great book dorks who have read Infinite Jest five or six times. Then we talked through it.”

“I think what’s so special about David Foster Wallace’s writing is he touches on some very universal human feelings,” he continued. “And so I really tried to pay attention to the parts of us that are the same.”

Journeying from Illinois to Minnesota together by car over the course of five days, journalist and interviewee banter about subjects across the cultural spectrum: television, suicide, drugs, junk food, depression and the unbearable heaviness of Wallace’s fame. “I don’t mind appearing in Rolling Stone,” he says in the film. “I mind seeming like I want to appear in Rolling Stone.”

A novelist in his own minimally-celebrated right, Lipsky is shown attempting to simultaneously win over the author while setting him up for a takedown; he idealizes Wallace even while agonizing and arguing with the writer about his frailties and contradictions. “What I saw in Dave and David was this kind of doppelgänger,” End of the Tour screenwriter Donald Margulies said Friday. “Two very bright, complicated guys bumping up against each other over the course of an abbreviated period of time. And encapsulated in those days was friendship, competition, so many conflicting things about the nature of art, the publicizing of art, and how do people reconcile that?”

One place they do it? In a car.