The End of the Tour (2015 Top Movies, no.9)
Director: James Ponsoldt; Writer: Donald Margulies; Director of Photography: Jakob Ihre; Editor: Darrin Navarro; Composer: Danny Elfman
Starring: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg
Country: United States
At age 46, author David Foster Wallace committed suicide, leaving behind an unfinished 3rd novel as the capper to one of the most highly-regarded bodies of modern literature. The End of the Tour sets us 12 years beforehand, when Wallace reached an unexpected high from the success of his 2nd novel, Infinite Jest. Here, the author (played by a marvelous Jason Segel) is interviewed on the last leg of his book tour by then-Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg, in a certain-to-be-underrated performance). The publisher wants the inside story on Wallace, and to Lipsky’s surprise, the genial writer may just give it, albeit slowly. On the surface, this is a simple reenactment of real-life conversations (the full account was published by Lipsky as the memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself in 2010) between two enthusiasts of literature and pop culture; a perfect tonic for both fans of subdued cinema, in the vein of My Dinner with Andre, or, on the flipside, followers of the modern podcast. It could’ve been 2 hours of film without conflict, and that would’ve been fine for book and art lovers.
Except there’s something else Lipsky wants even more than he wants the story. He wants to learn what it is that separates a giant like Wallace from the countless other all-too-forgettable struggling novelists out there (himself included). He’d never ask it aloud, but wants the answer to the worst query in journalism: where does Wallace get his ideas? At each sit-down, Lipsky casually brings up an observation about the author, masked as minutiae, but knowingly sensitive enough to prod him for a revelation. Each time, Wallace does the unprecedented; he actually answers with a sincere, open-wound secret, but it never seems to be what Lipsky expects, taking them further and further away from the discourse – and the image of Wallace – he has in mind. If that makes the film sound like a thriller, it isn’t; Margulies’ script remains simmeringly casual throughout, drawing the two leads closer but never losing their apprehensiveness. Also of credit to this are the performances themselves, under Ponsoldt’s assured direction, with neither role unbalancing the other.
Eisenberg brings one of his most carefully-measured efforts to the table, slipping the right temper of unease and frustration in between the infectious thrill of getting to bond with an idol. That thrill soon builds – maybe too quickly – into an undeserved confidence, as it so often does between men. Then other parties enter the picture, and the unease threatens a bit too unevenly in Wallace’s direction. By the time things come to a head, there is a tragic strain to the casual familiarity we saw the two develop. Ironically, it may be in the fallout that Lipsky gains the answer closest to the one he’s looking for.
As to Segel’s performance? More than a convincing approximation of the author, he breathes effortlessly as the unfairly-complex figure that Lipsky cannot seem to unravel, a mix of delicate sincerity, sophisticated patience and childlike reservation. Molding his Wallace role in line with the eccentric artists of the biopic genre (see this year’s Love & Mercy, which, if I get around to it, I’ll have on my “other” list) would’ve not only been easy, but potentially award-drawing. He digs instead to the author’s realness, and every revelation not only rings true to himself, but feels right to us.
“It’s two people in a room. If you’re going to do […] entertainment that doesn’t have just two people talking, you’re missing the whole essence of what’s human.” Anyone passionate about storytelling, regardless of which influences are drawn, can lose themselves in the beat of two people who simply talk to each other about things that matter to them. Lipsky didn’t get what he wanted, but Wallace left him with something invaluable – including enough enigma to keep him (and us) questioning.