One of the hardest things to pull off on film is depicting intellectuals intellectualizing. It either comes across very pretentious or very abstract, which is also pretty pretentious. This is especially difficult if you have to people essentially just talking to each other for a whole movie. It would be very easy to make this boring or uncompelling, but director James Ponsoldt was able to do this beautifully, naturally, and, most importantly, realistically in his new film The End of the Tour, which relies on its actors’ ability to convey things subtly to further the plot, something few filmmakers have the confidence to do.
Playwright Donald Margulies adapted Rolling Stone journalist and author David Lipsky’s memoir, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, about the five days he spent in 1996 interviewing and forging a strange friendship with author David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008. Wallace, as you probably know, wrote the novel Infinite Jest, an exceedingly dense, 1000+ page tome full of footnotes and digressions that became a national bestseller and propelled the author to fame he neither knew how to deal with nor particularly wanted.
Whether or not you’ve read Infinite Jest, or even really heard of David Foster Wallace, is fairly immaterial; the movie is less concerned with the work itself and much more concerned about the man, who was a strange kind of tortured genius who seemed only to be on the lookout for friendship and came up with fans who wanted a piece of him. Wallace lived in an isolated house in Indiana with only a couple of dogs as companions; allowing Lipsky to enter this world seemed at once something he didn’t enjoy and something he relished.
Lipsky is played by Jesse Eisenberg who gives the role his specific brand of insecure arrogance. I was particularly impressed that the movie, and likely the source material, allowed Lipsky to be pretty unlikable for a lot of the time. He’s jealous of Wallace’s success, and really of his ability to write, and wants to come off as a big shot reporter for a major magazine at all times. He’s forever turning on his tape recorder and sort of sticking it in Wallace’s face when they’re just having a conversation. But it’s this tension that gives the movie its firm footing.
While Eisenberg does a fine job, the film rests on the portrayal of David Foster Wallace, played by Jason Segel. It’s such a tricky role to get right, because Wallace was an exceedingly confusing and complex figure. Through the whole thing, we can tell that he’s very uncomfortable with the idea of being interviewed, the idea of having fame, the idea of being at the center of attention, but he also seems to kind of relish it. He clearly likes Lipsky in some way but is very wary of him and almost every scene has Wallace open up about something and then close off again once the questions become more probing than he’d probably have liked. How people see him is incredibly important to him, but he isn’t in control of it. And ultimately, Segel had to make Wallace seem both mythic and meek, since there certainly is a reason the man was revered and admired, and his persona is mysterious. It’s a very, very fine line to walk and I think Segel absolutely kills it.
Director Ponsoldt, whose previous films include Smashed and The Spectacular Now, has knocked it out of the park yet again, this time by creating a very realistic, very “average” visual world (the Midwest in the dead of winter), allowing the actors and the conversation to drive the scene, and then still finding the beauty and the wonder of those simple surroundings. Being mostly people talking and having been adapted by a playwright, it’d be very easy for a director to shoot the movie like a play, or at least give it a bit of stagey blocking, but Ponsoldt doesn’t. It’s very naturalistic and yet completely artful.
Few movies engage in the ideas of what it means to be a working writer in such a realistic way without indulging in the more romantic side of it. Writers are, by and large, insecure, vain, jealous, and in the case of David Foster Wallace, very lonely and isolated. It’s by definition a pretty lonely profession and this movie presents it, warts and all, without making it seem like some glamorous Hollywood profession akin to architect or chef. The End of the Tour is one of the finest films of the year so far and one I hope as many people see as possible.