Editor’s Notes: The End of the Tour opens in limited release today, July 31st.
Through two and now three films, director James Ponsaldt (The Spectacular Now, Smashed), has proven himself a deft, able filmmaker, a talented dramatist whose films reveals an undeniable empathy and sympathy, free of moral judgment, for his damaged, flawed characters. A minor-key miniaturist, Ponsaldt mines the complications, complexities, and conflicts inherent in relationships, romantic and otherwise, for thematic depth and genuine, thought-provoking insight into what used to be called – and maybe should be called again – the human condition. His latest film, The End of the Tour, an adaptation of David Lipsky’s memoir, moves away from the romantic relationships of his previous two films into other, equally fraught terrain, the competitive relationship between ostensibly creative writers (both men), the boundaries between subject and object (journalism), and celebrity culture (among other topics and themes).
A minor-key miniaturist, Ponsaldt mines the complications, complexities, and conflicts inherent in relationships, romantic and otherwise.
Essentially a two-character drama like Ponsaldt’s previous two films, The End of the Tour focuses on the five days writer and journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) spent with David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), as Wallace closed out his multi-city book tour for his career-making novel, Infinite Jest, epic, doorstop-sized tome, an ambitious, dense, sprawling novel everyone seemed to be reading when it came out, but few actually finished (even if they claimed otherwise), in 1996. Like his cinematic counterpart, the real-life Lipsky, a published writer (his novel, The Art Fair, failed to find an audience or critical support at the time), pitched an idea for a Rolling Stone article, a long-form interview with Wallace. Both his Rolling Stone editor and Wallace ultimately agreed, sending Lipsky, a New Yorker, to Wallace’s home in Bloomington, Indiana (Wallace taught creative writing at a local university there). The Wallace he meets, somewhat manic, often uncomfortable in his own skin, unequal parts effusive and elusive, captivates Lipsky. Despite his attempts to remain impartial and objective, Lipsky can’t help but let his own biases and prejudices, including but not limited to his envy and jealousy of Wallace’s commercial success and critical approbation.
The Wallace that emerges in The End of the Tour is far more than a one- or even two-dimensional character defined by a single or singular trait.
As Lipsky tags along with Wallace through book signings, radio interviews, and hotel stays, Lipsky pushes Wallace to reveal more and more about himself, including his pre-face brush with substance and alcohol abuse, rehab, and Wallace’s multiple brushes with suicide. Given Wallace’s death in 2008 at the age of 46 by suicide, not to mention a framing device that bookends The End of the Tour set in the same year, a sense of foreboding, not to mention foreshadowing, hangs over the film. Unsurprisingly, both Wallace’s widow, representing his estate, as well as other friends and colleagues, have taken issue with Wallace’s depiction in The End of the Tour as suicidal or, at minimum, preoccupied with suicide. It raises both the question of historical accuracy (Lipsky based his memoir on hours of audio recordings) and whether we can truly know another human being. (Short answer? Probably not.) To Ponsaldt and screenwriter David Marguelies’ credit (adapting Lipsky’s memoir), the Wallace that emerges in The End of the Tour is far more than a one- or even two-dimensional character defined by a single or singular trait.
Wallace might be mercurial, temperamental, sometimes even petty, but he’s also conflicted by the unexpected (to him) literary fame and celebrity bestowed on him by the success of Infinite Jest. He’s sufficiently self-aware to acknowledge the risks of fame and celebrity to both his ego and his reputation, but that doesn’t stop him from embracing the rewards, including respect and adulation (among other perks), that come with fame and celebrity. Wallace’s boundary-crossing relationship with Lipsky turns freezer cold not at Lipsky’s constant probing into Wallace’s self-destructive history, but with an ill-timed flirtation with one of Lipsky’s friends, Betsy (Mickey Sumner). Wallace’s jealousy, a product of male, agency-denying territoriality, adds an additional layer to the flawed, fully human Wallace – brought to nuanced life, it should be added, by Segel – we encounter onscreen. And with a typically self-effacing performance by Eisenberg – few contemporary actors are as willing to portray potentially unlikeable, even unrelatable characters as Eisenberg – The End of the Tour offers nothing less than a richly rewarding experience.
With a typically self-effacing performance by Eisenberg – few contemporary actors are as willing to portray potentially unlikeable, even unrelatable characters as Eisenberg – The End of the Tour offers nothing less than a richly rewarding experience.