Review: The End of the Tour
PLOT: In the winter of 1996, Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) is sent out to write a profile of author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), who's nearing the end of his book tour for 'Infinite Jest'.
REVIEW: Director James Ponsoldt is clearly one of the most consistently exciting directors to have emerge from Sundance over the last few years, with his SMASHED and THE SPECTACULAR NOW having played to near-unanimous acclaim. THE END OF THE TOUR looks to continue that streak, with it maybe being his most polished, mature film to date.
Being such an enigmatic figure, David Foster Wallace would have been a tough guy to tackle in a conventional biopic. By focusing on author David Lipsky's memoir of his three days with Wallace, Ponsoldt's film doesn't have to delve too deeply into Wallace's psyche, and most importantly doesn't have to make excuses or try to explain his eventual tragic end. Rather, it gives us the opportunity to put ourselves in Lipsky's shoes as he tries to somehow figure out what drives the man, and what it's like to be arguably the voice of his generation, which, interestingly, is a status Lipsy (at least in the film) envied.
Through it all, Wallace's voice comes through strongly. Outside of a Richard Linklater film, THE END OF THE TOUR is one of the most dialogue-driven movies to come along in awhile. Much of the film is just conversations between Lipsky and Wallace, but the result is utterly fascinating. Given that this takes place in the mid-nineties, Wallace seemed unnaturally aware of the direction pop culture was going in, being a self-professed TV junkie, but at the same time realizing how shallow the experience could be if you allowed a screen to be the center of your life. Considering that eighteen years later people are more reliant than ever on screens his words seem prescient and give us interesting insight into the mind of a man who seemed particularly attuned to the world around him, even if he seems absolutely ill-at-ease in it.
END OF THE TOUR is absolutely a two-hander, with Eisenberg and Segel in particular doing tremendous work. For Segel, this is the kind of performance that feels like a career re-calibration, as he manages to turn Wallace, who's an almost mythic figure by this point to a generation of readers, into a man who's utterly human. Sporting his trademark bandana and wire-rim glasses, Segel disappears into the part.
As for Eisenberg, in some ways he has the tougher part, as Lipsky's often shown to be a somewhat unlikable character. He frequently intrudes on Wallace's hospitality by poking through his medicine cabinet when his back is turned, snooping through his home, and even flirting with his ex-girlfriend or teasing the recovering alcoholic Wallace by sipping a beer defiantly in front of him. He seems to be playing a kind of power game, trying to gain the advantage over a man he clearly admires. Still, you can't help but invest in Lipsky and Wallace's relationship, as they really do seem like they could have been friends, even if Lipsky's role as a journalist forces them into a relationship that's at least somewhat adversarial.
Ponsoldt does open the film up in the second half as Lipsky and Wallace head to Minneapolis on the 'Infinite Jest' tour. It's always low-key, and nothing phony is added to the film to make it cinematic, rather you just follow them along as they chat, hang out with a few friends (Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner) and even take in a movie (apropos for the period, BROKEN ARROW).
Even if you've never read Wallace, THE END OF THE TOUR is emotionally absorbing stuff, and outside of something like THE TRIP (which benefited from being a semi-doc) it's one of the strongest portraits of male friendship, with all of its one-upmanship and quirks, that's been captured in awhile. While it's still early, THE END OF THE TOUR feels like it very well may be the best that this year's edition of Sundance has to offer.