I know, I know, I’m late on this. ‘The End of the Tour’ opened at the Varsity in early September. No one saw it in theaters. It grossed under $3million in total and was only shown on 355 screens across North America. It was released on Blu-Ray/DVD this past Tuesday and is now downloadable on iTunes – you owe it to yourself to see this movie. ‘The End of the Tour’ is one of the best films of 2015.
The plot has an understated simplicity reminiscent to ‘My Dinner with Andre’ from 1981. ‘The End of the Tour’ chronicles the 5-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) during the final leg of a multi-city book tour for his 1,079-page bestseller ‘Infinite Jest’ in 1996. I’ve never read ‘Infinite Jest’; during my most recent visit to Indigo, I picked up this 3-lbs book and was already intimidated by it. The cover looks fabulous, so I trust the book is as well. Over those five days, Lipsky and Wallace eat junk food, down soda, smoke cigarettes, talk…and talk….and talk – the film’s pleasures are largely vernacular.
Roger Ebert once said “Every great film should seem new every time you see it”. ‘The End of the Tour’ has significant re-watch value. On first viewing, you might watch it from Lipsky’s angle – from the point of view of a guy who is interviewing a celebrity writer, a writer who has reached a level of success that Lipsky has not yet achieved; Lipsky looks up to him, but is also extremely envious of him, which can make things challenging when everything is on the record. On second viewing, you can see it from David Foster Wallace’s angle – a writer who is clearly able to have a friendly connection with another writer but is unable to connect on a personal level because he can’t trust the man with the tape recorder. These are men with competing, contradictory impulses: being torn between dispirited seclusion and an eagerness for connection, exploring the channels of publicity and being weary about the insincerity of it all.
‘The End of the Tour’ isn’t going to be for everyone. If you are looking for a towering cradle-to-the-grave story, I don’t think this going to deliver what you want. That movie might get made someday, but with the movie we have today, director James Ponsoldt wisely focuses on a crucial period in Wallace’s career. The window may not be sufficient enough to understand the man, his work, or his metaphysics. What it is, however, is a scintillating commentary on the moral quagmire our celebrity-obsessed society anchors on the gifted and the undistinguished alike. These are two men at different junctures of professional success within the same field. One wants to be the other. The other wants something else. The movie’s insights into professional jealousy, public perception, and the fragile connection between writers obliterate the sort of reservations I typically have with biopics.
A friend informed me that the screenplay was structured around the published transcripts of those tape-recorded conversations. That explains why the accelerated repartee between these two feel lived-in and organic as opposed to a product of screenplay workshopping. This is a marvelous screenplay, one that acknowledges the uncomfortable silences that punctuates these conversations. There is warmth, humor, and a curiosity about human nature. It made me wonder how Wallace would have responded to it; the conversations engage the mind, but there is also an emotional honesty within it. Wallace and Lipsky can have weighty conversations about what it all means, and moments later can turn off their brains to enjoy John Woo’s cheesy actioner ‘Broken Arrow’.
I’m not sure the Motion Picture Academy is going to recognize Jason Segel’s outstanding work in ‘The End of the Tour’, but they really should. You forget you’re watching Segel – his portrayal, regardless of whether it captures the true Wallace or not, is touching and sensitive – you hang on to his every word. We get a glimpse of Wallace’s neurotic behavior – his outburst at Lipsky, and his addiction to television. But he is also funny, and thoughtful. And Eisenberg, who has played everyone from a dorky park attendant to an a-hole genius tyrant, nearly equals Segel. I can’t imagine anyone else in these roles.
Though the movie opens in 2008 as Lipsky hears of Wallace’s death before going back a dozen years, the movie isn’t interested in doomful foreshadowing. There is no attempt to explain why Wallace killed himself, or define the less appealing aspects of his persona. “You don’t crack open a 1,000-page book because you heard the author was a regular guy. You do it because he’s brilliant.” Lipski conjectures. This is a movie about great minds made by people with great minds. QED.