Why Do We Love a Tortured Genius?

Chris Farley cracks up Jill Talley, Bob Odenkirk, Holly Wortell and Tim Meadows at Second City in Chicago as he performs one of his most iconic roles, Matt Foley, an over-the-top motivational speaker who "lives in a van, down by the river." Farley, who died of a drug overdose at the age of 33 in 1997, is the subject of a new documentary, "I Am Chris Farley." Network Entertainment

During their five-day verbal sparring session, chronicled in the film The End of the Tour, the one true damaging punch that welterweight intellect David Lipsky lands against super heavyweight David Foster Wallace occurs late in the bout. "I got a real serious fear of being seen in a certain way," says Wallace, whom Lipsky is profiling for Rolling Stone in the wake of his monumental 1,079-page novel, Infinite Jest. "I treasure my regular guy-ness."

"You don't crack open a thousand-page book because you heard the author is a regular guy," counters Lipsky. "You do it because he's brilliant."


Likewise, you don't spend 90 or so minutes and $12 to see The End of the Tour or I Am Chris Farley, both released Friday; or Love & Mercy (Brian Wilson), which came out in early June; or Amy (Winehouse), which premiered July 3; or Montage of Heck (Kurt Cobain), which premiered on HBO last spring, because you crave a bro-down. You expect exquisite genius, and you presume dire suffering.

Is the Tortured Genius a cliche, an epidemic, or both? And why are filmmakers—and Oscar—so consistently drawn to it? Whether our genius is tortured physically (Whiplash), synaptically (The Theory of Everything), societally (The Imitation Game) or delusionally (Birdman), the Academy Awards are often in their thrall. All four of those films, by the way, were 2015 Best Picture nominees (Birdman won), while also producing the Best Actor (Eddie Redmayne) and Best Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons).

In the two films that open on July 31st, our geniuses are linked by their common fate. Both author David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself at age 46, and comic Chris Farley, who died of an overdose at 33, perished alone, at their own hands, and far too young. The Wallace film, directed by James Ponsoldt, is not a boilerplate biopic. It is instead an excerpt from Wallace's life, five days spent in the company ofLipsky. After Wallace committed suicide in 2008, Lipsky commemorated their encounter in the well-received book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.

Lipsky's Rolling Stone piece, oddly enough, never ran in the magazine. Had Wallace been given an opportunity to put a title on their often awkward and arduous assignation, one supposes he would have taken it from his own clip file: "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again."

"For me, it was an incredibly emotional story," Ponsoldt, who himself is a former Rolling Stone intern, tells Newsweek. "David Lipsky, as the movie shows, put hours and hours of their conversations on tape and I listened to all of them. What's the inflection? How did these people seem with each other?"

If you were in a studio pitch meeting, you'd describe The End of the Tour as Almost Famous meets My Dinner with Andre. A post-Sundance review in the New York Post said exactly that. The year is 1996 and Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), 28, is a modestly successful author who begs his editor to allow him to tag along with Wallace (Jason Segel), 34. The latter's recently published work, Infinite Jest, has been lauded as the work of a genius, and indeed Wallace would receive a MacArthur Fellowship (aka the "Genius Grant") one year later.

"You're, like, a nervous guy," the laid-back, genuinely decent Wallace says to Lipsky during their first night together. You don't become the most hailed writer of your generation by being unobservant. Lipsky is nervous: He is full of wonder but also envy in the presence of this literary buzzsaw.

Theirs is a bizarre inverse relationship. Wallace is possessed of greater intellect and talent, but in availing himself to Lipsky, he is also the vulnerable one. It is Lipsky, as the man who may craft the story at his discretion, who has the greater leverage. "I don't know if you're a nice guy or not," Wallace confesses to Lipsky and, in truth, neither do we.

It is a relationship reminiscent of Mozart and Salieri, an association put to celluloid in the 1984 film Amadeus, which won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (F. Murray Abraham edged out his co-star, Tom Hulce, in that category). One might even say the Lipsky-Wallace relationship had strains of Judas and Jesus Christ, the latter of whom represents the Tortured Genius primeval (not that Lipsky betrayed Wallace, although the later writer's estate is on record as viewing the film as such).

The protagonist in I Am Chris Farley encounters no human nemesis. The antagonist here is loneliness, perhaps, or insecurity. "The thing about Chris is his heart," says Tom Arnold, one of a plethora of comics interviewed. "But inside that kind heart was a very frightened person."

The film, co-produced and directed by Derik Murray and Brent Hodge, employs a butter knife at points when a steak knife was required. It is a tribute film rather than a Frontline-style documentary, but who doesn't savor the idea of revisiting characters such as Matt Foley, Tommy Boy or the titular host of "The Chris Farley Show?"

"How are you? Chris Farley, Gallagher Tent and Awning," is what David Spade, the Abbott to Farley's Costello both on Saturday Night Live and later in films, recalls were Farley's first words to him, by way of introduction. Spade's Brobdingnagian buddy, even when they first met, was averse to turning off the comedy spigot.

What is apparent, via interviews with family members, college buddies and fellow comics, is that Farley was never off-stage. What also comes through with great clarity is that, like Wallace, his genius—Lorne Michaels refers to him as "infuriatingly talented"—was a byproduct of his innocence. Or, at the very least, his rejection of cynicism.

"A childlike innocence, a childlike soul," is how the director Murray described Farley to Newsweek. "Chris' entire life was committed to making other people laugh. He was born like that."

Farley was an explosion, while Wallace was a long, slow burn. Farley an extrovert, Wallace was far less so. Farley resembled a has-been football player, which he was, while the 6'4" Wallace never surrendered the athletic grace that had made him a nationally-ranked junior tennis player.

In many ways the two, who would be in their early 50s today, were dipoles. Yet they were both children of the Midwest (Farley, Wisconsin; Wallace, Illinois) and what they also appeared to have in common, that identifying Tortured Genius gene, was acute sensitivity. A sweetness. A soft shell that is not suitable armor for the inevitable confrontations that fame and prodigious talent invite.

There's a scene in The End of the Tour in which Wallace catches Lipsky flirting with Wallace's ex-girlfriend. Instead of exploiting his physical superiority, or even using verbal threats, a clearly upset Wallace simply implores Lipsky, "Be a good guy."

If only it were that simple. Farley, as everyone in his film attests, really was the insecure, innocent and star-struck guy he played on "The Chris Farley Show" ("I'm so stupid!") and in Tommy Boy. Brian Wilson, whose portrayal by Paul Dano in Love & Mercy should land him at least a Best Actor nomination, was similarly oblivious to the grandeur of his talent. Arguably the most satisfying scene in that entire film is when Wilson, following a Pet Sounds recording session, shares a smoke with a studio musician outside. The session player tells him, "We've played with all the best...Elvis, Phil Spector. No one can touch you."

Wilson, having spent the past 10 or so hours unconsciously arranging songs that were light years ahead of their time in terms of pop music complexity, moving about session musicians 30 years his senior as if they were chess pieces, simply gapes at him. "Really?" he asks with utter incredulity.

Hence, for a certain demographic who perhaps desires not to see the latest Marvel Comics movie or who can survive without seeing The Rock shirtless, the Tortured Genius is a more accessible celluloid superhero. One, because he or she is real. Two, because his or her powers are not the by-product of a freak lab accident. And, three, because we are all dealing with our own forms of Kryptonite.

And maybe our Tortured Geniuses are not so much imbued with superpowers. They may have more talent to a degree but maybe, loathe though the rest of us are to admit it, they just work harder than we do. "Dramatizing 'genius' seems so reductive and misinformed," says Ponsoldt, director of The End of the Tour, "because the truth is, you're working on Pet Sounds or a 1,079-page novel or [like Farley] busting your ass as you come up through Second City.

"Calling that genius," he says, "well, that just diminishes the real hard work."

Or, as Wallace tells Lipsky in the film, "As soon as you leave, I'm back to eight hours in a room by myself staring at a blank piece of paper. That's reality."