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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Review: The End of the Tour (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segal

The End of the Tour is a movie that's pretty much all talk and no action, a film of ideas and the discussion of experience not unlike My Dinner with Andre, except that there's more movement between locations. It's a deeply engaging, often fascinating picture which confirms director James Ponsoldt (Smashed, The Spectacular Now) as one of the best contemporary tellers of the character-driven drama, particularly in terms of his laser focus on the subtleties of a relationship between two people. It's the kind of film that throws a lot of academic ideas out about art and artists, but it's never dry or pedantic; it's smart and sometimes funny and often, knowing what we know about David Foster Wallace's death, bittersweet. Above all, it's a really good movie and a great character study.

Using David Foster Wallace's death in 2008, and writer David Lipsky's reaction to it, as a framing device, The End of the Tour takes place largely 12 years earlier, when Wallace's novel Infinite Jest is published to great acclaim and Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) pitches an idea to his editor at Rolling Stone about doing a piece on Wallace. Though somewhat dubious, his editor agrees to give him a shot at it and Lipsky flies out to Illinois to meet Wallace (Jason Segal) and begin the series of interviews that are to take place while he travels with the novelist on the final leg of his book tour. Like the editor, Wallace is somewhat dubious about the value of, and interest in, the interview and he's a little bit guarded, concerned about coming off as pretentious and given to affectation (he is particularly wounded when Lipsky asks about the ever-present bandana), and about the private details of his life being put out for public consumption and judgment. He is, however, generally friendly towards Lipsky, even in the moments when he could be excused for being less than polite in response to Lipsky's sometimes blunt questioning about such especially sensitive subjects as Wallace's alcoholism, his decision to commit himself as a result of mental health issues, and a suicide attempt.

Throughout their time together, Lipsky vacillates between being a Wallace enthusiast and a rival, at once in awe of the man for his accomplishments as a writer and envious that he has not enjoyed that same success (while praise is heaped upon Infinite Jest, Lipsky's own novel, Art Fair is greeted with far less excitement), and tensions between the two men slowly start to bubble to the surface. Perhaps projecting his own insecurities, Lipsky accuses Wallace of "dumbing" himself down to the level of what he assumes to be the lesser intelligence of those he's engaging with, holding back his brilliance in an effort not to intimidate others, which, given what we've seen, could just as easily be read as Lipsky inviting Wallace to reassure him of his own intelligence, as opposed to an outright accusation of wrongdoing. For his part, Wallace himself is not entirely secure in himself, getting his back up when he thinks that Lipsky is flirting with a woman that Wallace once dated, disguising his aggression as sorrowful gentleness when he encourages Lipsky to be "a good guy" by backing off. As the tour comes to an end, each seems to have invested the other with many of the qualities they dislike about themselves, though there may still be time to salvage things.

The most interesting thing about The End of the Tour is the way it characterizes the central relationship as an ongoing negotiation of the male homosocial interaction, making much of the film a subtle dance to determine which David will be the "Alpha David" in the relationship. Wallace, as the successful novelist lauded as the voice of his generation, has the natural power position as the film opens, though an argument could be made that Lipsky has his own degree of not inconsiderable power by virtue of his ability to use the interview to shape public opinion of Wallace. Moreover, Lipsky, being maybe a little more open and less withdrawn than his counterpart, can be seen stealing the attention when the two men are interacting within a group and, in particular, when interacting with women. It's the introduction of women into the story that really starts to cause friction in the relationship, kicking off a cycle of one upmanship between the men that, not coincidentally, brings a lot of the other issues up to the surface along with it. Lipsky flirts with Wallace's ex-girlfriend, so later on Wallace makes a point of talking to Lipsky's own girlfriend on the phone, spending a half hour (as Lipsky angrily points out to her after the fact) chatting with her compared to the one minute that Lipsky got to speak to her. Lipsky flirts with the ex-girlfriend again, Wallace has his "be a good guy" talk with him, and Lipsky responds by drinking a beer in front of him whereas before he was making a point of not consuming alcohol out of deference for Wallace's sobriety. And on and on as the two keep shifting the power dynamic back and forth, Lipsky trying to catch up and make them just a little more equal while Wallace quietly reaffirms the status quo.

"Quiet" is what Wallace is above all, with Ponsoldt and Segal relying as much on the character's silence as his speech to capture his personality. As played by Segal, Wallace rarely ever raises his voice, but when he's upset he makes that feeling known, retreating into himself and becoming taciturn, sometimes radiating waves of hostility. A predominantly comic actor up until now, Segal is something of a revelation in the role, underplaying rather than overplaying as a character that, by virtue of the fact that film opens with word of his death and then proceeds to be seen through the eyes of another, always seems a bit like a specter, forever just beyond our reach. As the story's true protagonist, Eisenberg plays the sort of role that he plays often and well, bringing a sense of darkness and volatility to the role so that we never quite know whether the character is being sincere or is using the pretense of sincerity for his own ends. Lipsky is a conflicted character, driven by opposing desires to celebrate a writer who's work he's come to love (despite himself) and to find chinks in the armor to prove that, despite the acclaim, Wallace isn't "better" than him. Yet even while he's doing that, his desire for Wallace's approval is never far from the surface, and even he himself concedes that there's a bit of a "big brother/little brother" thing going on. There's a certain electricity in the give and take between the two actors, a sense that any given conversation could suddenly veer off course into nastiness if one were to make a wrong verbal step, that gives The End of the Tour a delightful little edge and helps keep it so riveting from beginning to end. I'm a fan of Ponsoldt's previous films The Spectacular Now, an uncommonly intelligent movie about teenagers, and Smashed, an insightful look at addiction and co-dependence, but I have no hesitation in saying that The End of the Tour is his best film to date.

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