'The End of the Tour'
It’s amazing how well some seemingly uncinematic ideas can work as films. Take ‘The End of the Tour’. Based on an abandoned magazine interview that David Lipsky conducted with author David Foster Wallace (which was later published as a book), it’s a very Linklater-ian tale of two men seemingly talking about nothing. And yet within those long-winded rants and ego clashes emerges something surprisingly moving, insightful, funny, witty and highly entertaining.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Lipsky, a struggling novelist who finds himself working at Rolling Stone around the release of Wallace’s 1996 literary classic ‘Infinite Jest’. At first, Lipsky is confounded by the glorious reviews that the 1,000 page tome receives and scoffs at the suggestion that it could possibly live up to the hype. Then he reads it and becomes so entranced that he talks his editor into letting him meet with Wallace for an extended interview. Lipsky flies out to Wallace’s unassuming home, where we meet Jason Segel’s lanky, unassuming, awkward, charming and brilliant version of the writer. The two take a trip to Chicago for the last leg of Wallace’s promotional tour, eat a bunch of junk food and chat about everything from the merits of ‘Broken Arrow’ and trash TV to the nature of success and the fragility of sanity. Egos clash, awkward silences are shared, and a friendship starts to form. In between, the conversations (and by extension the movie) seem to be about everything and nothing at once.
Though so much of the film features people discussing Wallace’s extraordinary writing and legacy, none of that writing is actually featured nor does the audience need to have read ‘Infinite Jest’ to appreciate the movie. Yes, the movie is very much about David Foster Wallace and much of the dialogue spoken by Segel comes from exact transcripts of the actual interview, but this isn’t anything resembling a traditional bio-pic or something made purely for the appreciation of Wallace’s legion of followers. Instead, it’s a rather wonderful two-handed character study. Adapted by award-winning playwright Donald Margulies and directed by James Ponsoldt (‘The Spectacular Now’), the film is more about the dangers of idol worship, the mystery of talent/genius, the uncomfortable nature of celebrity interviews, and just good old fashioned awkward behavior.
If you’re going to have two actors trot out awkward and passive aggressive comedy, then Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg are your boys. Segel disappears into the role of Wallace with ease, donning the iconic bandana, slacker charm and endlessly uncomfortable posturing. Meanwhile, Eisenberg plays off the narcissist routine he’s been using since ‘The Social Network’, appearing friendly one minute and filled with jealously the next. Their conversational sparring matches range from fun to contentious, depicting two men who like each other yet can never get as close as they might naturally due to ego and circumstance.
Though the extended chats hit on a number of topics, they’re more often than not about a writer who reached the pinnacle of his success telling another about how that space isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and the other writer refusing to accept it. Now, it might not sound like that conflict is dramatic enough to hinge a movie around, but here it’s plenty. The lowest low is silence, the highest high giggling, and collectively it feels like more.
The appeal of ‘The End of the Tour’ is small yet poignant. The filmmakers and actors tap into a slice of life so finely drawn and oddly deep that it’s easy to get lost. As hilarious as it is tragic and oddly touching, Ponsoldt’s movie feels like something special without ever stretching beyond the small and sincere. It’s the third time the filmmaker has pulled off that trick following ‘Smashed’ and ‘The Spectacular Now’, and this very well might be his most satisfying film to date. When ‘Boyhood’ received all of its deserved praise last year, some people wrote about how Richard Linklater carved out a place for himself as a conversational filmmaker that few modern directors will ever have the opportunity to explore. Without getting nearly the attention he deserves, Ponsoldt has proved that there’s room for at least one more director on that playing field. Hopefully, ‘The End of the Tour’ isn’t the last time he hits these heights.