Feature film

The End of the Tour Review: Two Sad Intellectuals Get In a Car

Friday, August 14, 2015 Rob Samuelson

The End of the Tour

Director: James Ponsoldt
Writer: Donald Magulies (screenplay), David Lipsky (book)
Starring: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg
Rating: Three and a half stars out of five
Available in limited release now.

Jealousy and admiration often run in the same circles. They're complicated emotions, often rooted in the terror of not being good enough. LeBron James started his NBA career wearing number 23, partly because he admired Michael Jordan, partly because he wanted to be Michael Jordan, and, while he would be loathe to admit it, he was not sure he could measure up to Michael Jordan.

The same goes for Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) as he urges his editor to allow him to do a piece traveling with the so-called writer of his generation, David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), as he promotes his dense 1,000-page novel Infinite Jest. If that was all The End of the Tour aspired to be, it would remain an interesting, personal look at someone we can only know from reading and re-reading his words – Wallace committed suicide in 2008. Luckily, the movie does its best to get inside Wallace's expansive brain, much like Lipsky attempted to do in their short time together, to explore his reticence to play that generational-talent role. It gives the audience Wallace's insecurities, second guesses, romantic and mundane addictions, and in-kind jealousy of Lipsky for not having to hold that crown on his head.

Their relationship is encompassed in something Wallace tells Lipsky on the first night of the in-depth interview. He has already had some touchy moments, shutting down lines of questioning some people would eagerly discuss, in between eloquent dissection of parts of himself and American culture at large. Small things become rather taboo to him, and Eisenberg as Lipsky, with his self-satisfied giggle and “knowing” nods, puts further barriers between the two. Wallace tells Lipsky, “I'm not even sure if I like you yet,” and that sense of feeling each other out pervades the rest of the film. Segel's Wallace has a mopey-but-sharp gregariousness one moment and a fierce need to withdraw the next. The two often step on each other's toes, and it comes to a head for an extended period – the movie's worst – during a bit of romantic jealousy that involves a maybe-misconstrued bit of flirtation on Lipsky's part with a former girlfriend of Wallace's.

It's the worst part of the film largely because it feels like an unnecessary dramatic invention. Whether the blow-up happened exactly as depicted does not matter, because it gets away from what the movie is. It is about two immensely intellectual people coming talking to each other about cultural anxieties. By inserting a sequence of the two not speaking, it takes a detour from what makes this story compelling in the first place and just spins its wheels for 15 minutes of precious screen time.

But once it does get going again, with, to the film's credit, nary an apology from either side, the discussions take a turn for the extremely introspective and dark. The two go back and forth, with a bit of accusatory bite, about multiple layers of shame, sense of duty to the collective world, doubt, and insecurity about how people spend their free time. Segel makes Wallace a man who can barely keep it together, forever unsure of which step to take next because of how it will be perceived. In juxtaposition, Eisenberg's Lipsky is someone who wants validation for his efforts, always putting out feelers and trying out new ways to be perceived. They both feel bad about how they approach the world and the things they do to keep their minds off their troubles.

Wallace's television addiction pops up a few times as a source of his shame but also a vehicle for his greatest cultural criticism and satire. Like in his real-life essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S.Fiction” and one of Infinite Jest's primary targets, the film's semi-fictionalized Wallace espouses a great deal about the effect screens have on humanity as a whole. When he gets a chance – he purposely keeps his home free of a TV – he goes down a rabbit hole of supposedly “low” culture because something inside him tells him he must.

But where the film falters here is by remaining too attached to Lipsky and the false realism his account provides the proceedings. The camera may hold on straight-on shots of a TV then reverse to Wallace's face, transfixed, but it is still at a remove. This could be a product of Lipsky being unable to enter Wallace's mind, the place he so wishes to be but cannot crack the code. But movies are not limited in the same way. Some dreamy subjectivity, perhaps in the Buster Keaton or David Cronenberg mold, would break up the handsome-but-ordinary visual language of this picture and give the audience a taste of the psychologic effects Wallace to desperately tries to convey in words.

The End of the Tour fails that particular “show, don't tell” test and gets mired in moments of unneeded heightened drama. But when the movie runs on all cylinders, it's hard to beat. The image of two smart people, eating dangerous amounts of candy, talking about what it all means, outweigh the film's weaknesses.

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