One day in the latter months of my senior year of high school, my exasperated Physics teacher took an extended class period to screen the 1990 film Mindwalk for the class. While I’m still not sure that a group of 17-year-olds approaching summer vacation are really capable of appreciating a film with literally no plot, I’m going to use the power of lies and revisionist history to pretend I was the only one in the room mature enough to be captivated by the two-hour discussion. This was a film which consisted entirely of three people walking around and discussing philosophies and approaches to life. These were the kinds of casual debates that my teen mind believed happened frequently in the adult world, setting expectations I now realize were unrealistic. They failed to account for the fact that the smartest people I know are forced to be intellectual all day at work, and in their spare time would rather get drunk and pontificate on the existential quandaries posed by The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask than discussing the greater impact of their presence in the world.
I mention this because of the relative rarity of movies like The End of the Tour, films based primarily around one ongoing intellectual discussion. It enters a class with the Before… trilogy and My Dinner With Andre, films which border on the pretentious but are mainly endearing due to the fascinating people talking to each other on screen. End of the Tour has the bonus challenge of being based around actual discussions held between actual people, one of which is beloved and revered by the target audience.
In this regard, it feels good to hear David Foster Wallace (played by Jason Segel) discuss his love of Alanis Morissette or Die Hard, to imagine a literary legend saluting the middle-brow in genuine sincerity. That was always the appeal of David Foster Wallace’s writing for me (and this is the only time I’ll mention his writing in this review, I promise): They contain a genuine appreciation and affection for the mundane. This can be a great asset for people whose social anxiety, social status, or plain old social awkwardness keep their comfort zones and spheres of influence on the smaller side of average. James Ponsoldt understands this feeling, and captures the experience on film in the strongest way possible.
The End of the Tour features Jesse Eisenberg as novelist-turned-Rolling Stone-journalist David Lipsky, who talks his way into writing a profile of Segel’s David Foster Wallace, immediately after the publishing of Wallace’s immensely popular and esteemed novel Infinite Jest. Lipsky accompanies Wallace from his Indiana home to Minneapolis for the final stop of the Infinite Jest book tour, and the majority of the film surrounds their conversations and getting to know each other over knockoff soda and cable television. Though it’s never outright said, their relationship is established early on at a diner: Lipsky idolizes Wallace and hopes to use him to further his career, Wallace is afraid of Lipsky but still views him as a potential friend, something you get the sense he doesn’t have. Both men are fully aware of each other’s agendas, and their relationship is further complicated by the amount of power Lipsky has over the public’s perception of Wallace. This is a recurring theme in the dichotomy of these two men, but not the defining component.
If there is a defining component of their conversations (and therefore the film), it’s an ever-pervasive sense of loneliness and societal disconnect. Segel completely loses himself in playing Wallace, who he portrays as chronically shy and self-aware to a fault. Segel’s performance is revelatory as he rattles off monologues and musings which would feel pre-planned if it weren’t David Foster Wallace. In one scene, the men actually argue over how much of his persona is an act, and Segel’s natural penchant for sincerity shines through. In another key moment, Wallace witnesses Lipsky having an engaged conversation with Wallace’s ex-girlfriend Betsy (Mickey Sumner) and her friend. Though both story and character claim his anger stems from believing Lipsky is hitting on his former lover, Segel plays this even more personally: In his portrayal, David Foster Wallace is angry because he’s jealous of David Lipsky’s ability to have a conversation with strangers at all.
This weird combination of anxiety, charm, and self-loathing is hard to capture on film, but James Ponsoldt has made an oddly burgeoning career of it. Here he alternates between shooting cramped quarters with a-little-too-close close-up and setting wide establishing shots of vast empty midwestern tundra. Comparisons to the Coen Brothers and Richard Linklater are obvious, but Ponsoldt’s work is something of it’s own. It is at once intimate and empty, just like the feeling one gets when falling in love with an author through their words. This commitment to making the medium fit the message it is delivering is what really keeps The End of the Tour from feeling solely like a conversation-based movie, and more like a character study.
Ponsoldt and screenwriter Donald Margulies treat David Foster Wallace as a man who would eventually kill himself because he was a wellspring of sincerity in a world which increasingly valued irony and cynicism. When this is your starting point, the only way to do justice to the subject is to approach it without a hint of sardonicism, which is why you hire a team of people whose career has been built around candidness and openness. Only Eisenberg has a reputation as a sarcastic or self-effacing character, which is what makes him a perfect foil for Segel’s earnest nature. In a world filled with biopics that are essentially whitewash jobs, it’s refreshing to see one willing to approach itself with as much honesty as possible. Like the brilliant people you know that are tired of acting like themselves all the time, it makes a real person seem more likeable when you’re willing to show them doing things other than what everyone loves them for already.
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