Here is a description of some of the most innovative and important American theater of the last quarter of the 20th century. A man sits at a table and starts talking. If he has props, they are minimal — a spiral notebook, a record player, a box of pictures — and his costume is correspondingly modest, consisting usually of a flannel shirt, blue jeans or chinos, and sneakers. He speaks mostly about himself, digressing from anecdotes about his childhood and professional life into more serious confessional territory, though always with reserve and good humor.
Before you know it, 90 minutes have gone by, during which you have been moved, tickled, held in suspense and, at last, in ways that are difficult to analyze in retrospect, freshly awakened to some of the mysteries and serendipities of human existence.
When Spalding Gray, the man at that table, began performing his autobiographical monologues in the late 1970s and early '80s — first as a member of the Wooster Group, then on his own — they felt radical and revelatory, like bulletins from newly discovered artistic territory. By 2004, when Mr. Gray committed suicide by jumping from the Staten Island Ferry, his work was a familiar and widely appreciated feature of the cultural landscape. He made occasional appearances in movies, television series and conventional plays, but his great role, his great project, was himself.
His progress from the fringe to the mainstream was sped by a series of films made by skilled and sympathetic directors: Jonathan Demme's "Swimming to Cambodia"; Nick Broomfield's "Monster in a Box"; and "Gray's Anatomy," by Steven Soderbergh. Now Mr. Soderbergh has assembled a biographical tribute that is also a sampler of Mr. Gray's performances, formal and otherwise.
The film, "And Everything Is Going Fine" (the highly ironic title comes from a monologue excerpted in the film), is, among other things, a tour de force of smart and sensitive editing. Drawing on recordings of stage appearances, television interviews with MTV and Charlie Rose, and other videotaped conversations, this documentary is as digressive and, miraculously, as coherent as the monologues that are its principal inspiration.
At one point Mr. Gray explains how, through improvisation, transcription and revision, his pieces arrived at their final shape and duration. In addition to shedding light on this process — which transformed raw experience into what its subject and author sometimes called "narcissistic journalism" — "And Everything Is Going Fine" replicates it, almost as if it were a single, unbroken recitation stretched out over a quarter-century.
Its chronology is both straightforward and hauntingly complex — a fugue of past and present. The narrative proceeds, more or less in order, from Mr. Gray's childhood (in Barrington, R.I.), through his college years and his early acting career, then onward through sex, love, fame, family and middle age. But the narrator himself ages and grows younger according to a different rhythm, depending on when each act of reminiscence was performed and recorded. His hair is browner or grayer, longer or shorter, and the shades of flannel change along with the timbre of his voice and the arch of his eyebrows.
The story he has to tell is, on one level, a rambling, anecdotal account of a more or less ordinary life, its tragedies, absurdities and frustrations offered with sincerity and charm. In an era of rampant memoirism and multimedia T.M.I., Mr. Gray might seem like a pioneer or just another old guy rattling on about himself, but Mr. Soderbergh uses his own artistic resources to remind us of Mr. Gray's uniqueness as an artist. A natural actor (praised early on for his uncanny sense of timing), he was also an extraordinary writer, perhaps the last in a long line of introspective, eccentric, mildly melancholic New Englanders going back to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Though his accent, with its inaudible R's and mouth-filling vowels, might strike some ears with an upper-crusty sound, Mr. Gray's background was modest and his sensibility democratic. His interest in his own condition, which could verge on the morbid, was also an expression of his interest in everybody else, and his investigations of personal life usually seemed less like over-sharing than like generosity, or even friendship. To see him, onstage or on screen, was to know him.
This sense of intimacy makes "And Everything Is Going Fine" both vibrant — what amazing company this man was! — and terribly sad. There is no introduction or postscript that mentions Mr. Gray's death, but its shadows gather early, when he talks about his mother's nervous breakdowns and her eventual suicide. As he grows older, death returns as a theme, and as his monologues adopt some of the idioms of therapy culture, the specters of depression and its sister maladies creep into the frame.
What caused this gentle man, with two young sons (one of whom, Forrest, composed music for this film) and a place of honor in the imaginative life of New York and the rest of America, to end his life? There is no simple answer, of course, but someone might have turned an exploration of the question into a funny, illuminating and poignant piece of theater. Or, failing that, a movie, which is what Mr. Soderbergh has done.
— A.O. Scott, New York Times