Let the Oscar race begin. James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour (opening today) is a fascinating, heady little movie featuring two of the best performances you’ll see this year. But it’s the director’s take on this story that truly makes it one of the richest movie-going experiences of 2015.
David Foster Wallace is dead. This is hardly a spoiler, as the film starts off with news of his death. So who is David Foster Wallace? That question becomes the crux of the movie.
Now that we live in a wiki-culture, any layman can dig up some truth nuggets as to who David Foster Wallace was, and is. He is an American author, who at the age of 46 in 2008, committed suicide after battling depression for years. He is also credited as being one of the best and most influential writers of our time. His 1996, over-a-thousand-page novel, Infinite Jest, is considered one of the best American novels of the past century. He did much more than this, of course, but this is how his career has been defined and recorded now seven years after his death.
The concept of being “defined” was one of Wallace’s greatest fears when he reluctantly agreed to a lengthy five-day interview with budding Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky shortly after Infinite Jest was published back in 1996. The End of the Tour is the story of Lipsky’s experience with Wallace during those five days, and the movie is perhaps, the physical manifestation of every one of Wallace’s trepidations…here of course, is a story about Wallace that he has no control over, but is rather Wallace as seen through the eyes of others.
With that in mind – and before I continue – it’s important to put this film in the proper context. The historic interview in which this film is based on was never published in Rolling Stone by Lipsky…none of the interviews were even made public until after Wallace’s death, in Lipsky’s book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. According to reports everywhere, Wallace’s estate was not involved in nor did they support the idea that Lipsky’s interview would be made into a feature-film. Wallace, who wrote extensively on entertainment and pop culture’s ability to fully consume its audiences, would have never been in favor of attaching his name to an entertainment vehicle meant to be fully consumed by its audience. Not one that he didn’t have full creative control over, anyways.
But with that disclaimer, it has also been widely acknowledged that nearly all of the dialogue and interchange in the movie between Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and Wallace (Jason Segel) was lifted directly from the taped recordings. And although I do not claim to have access into the mind of either David Foster Wallace or The End of the Tour‘s director, James Ponsoldt, I think it will be clear to anyone who sees this movie that it was made with full appreciation and reverence. Whether or not the Wallace estate takes it as an homage or flattery, does not discredit the palpable approbation that pours out of nearly every frame.
The movie begins with Lipsky receiving news of Wallace’s death, and then flashes back to his five-day interview, where Lipsky traveled to Wallace’s quaint Mid-Western home in mid-winter, to accompany him on the last days of Wallace’s book tour for Infinite Jest. The movie establishes that Wallace is renowned, so we are immediately interested, as is Lipsky, in finding out what makes this guy tick. Framed with the knowledge that he eventually kills himself, there is a cloud of tragedy hanging above everything, and a sense of authenticity: Rarely do frauds or charlatans kill themselves off. Usually it’s the struggling geniuses, whose hyper-sensitivities to the world in which they live in make it hard for them to find inner-peace, who end up suffering such a fate.
Jason Segel – who last starred in Sex Tape and whose film and TV credits include The Muppets, How I Met Your Mother and Freaks and Geeks – is absolutely astounding as Wallace. Surely, he was considered for the role based on his uncanny physical similarities to the real Wallace, but he fully embodies the man. It’s a career-redefining role and one that, if it didn’t land him at least an Oscar nomination, would be unthinkable. Eisenberg is equally powerful and effective. They both need to be, as almost every scene involves one or both of them verbally jabbing and juking, trying to get inside their counter-parts defenses.
In addition to the great performances, there is Citizen-Kane-level symbolism created in nearly every shot…a credit to the skillfully crafty direction by James Ponsoldt. Ponsoldt’s last film, The Spectacular Now (one of my absolute favorite films of 2013), was exceptional in how he was able to boil down complex characters into an easy, simplistic storytelling style. He builds upon that gift here. And just make yourself aware of the physical proximity between Lipsky and Wallace throughout their encounters. When Lipsky first meets Wallace, it is a cold reception, literally, and Wallace is kept in the distance. Slowly, as Wallace warms to his interviewer, we literally watch as Lipsky gets closer and closer to his subject. As the cat-and-mouse game continues, sometimes the two of them are too close…and what they find isn’t always pretty. Even pay attention to their car ride conversations, and to who is driving and when. Perhaps I’m looking too closely into things? Well at the very least, The End of the Tour was the sort of film that primed my intellectual nerve-endings, and made me want to exercise my mind as I tried to understand the anatomy of this rare mental prodigy. It was always engaging, captivating, and mesmerizing…a blend of fine acting, interesting subject matter, and masterful direction.
For me, The End of the Tour marks the beginning of real award consideration, for Segel, for Eisenberg, for Ponsoldt and for the movie itself. To other actors and directors with movies coming out this Fall, you now know where the bar is set.
Run Time: 1 hours, 46 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack, Mamie Gummer
Based on the book by David Lipsky
Written by Donald Margulies
Directed by James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, Smashed, Off the Black)
Opens locally on Friday, Aug 14, 2015 (check for show times).