“The End of the Tour”
Comes to Some Thoughtful Conclusions
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Director James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour,” dramatizing the real-life interview between “Rolling Stone” reporter David Lipsky and acclaimed author David Foster Wallace, affirmed for me why I don’t have any writer friends. To use an apt phrase from the 1960s, it’d be a bit too heavy… the constant thrust and parry of egos dominating whatever relationship there existed. Spare me the scrutinization of my participles, the possible overuse of commas and a penchant for flowery sarcasm. Nope. Give me teachers, explorers and entrepreneurs for pals. I’ll be the writer.
Still, sitting in the safety of my own unquestioned conceit, I thoroughly enjoyed looking in on the joys, foibles, arrogance and whatever else makes the sparks fly when birds of a feather ruffle each other’s sense of self. Starring Jason Segel as Wallace, the recently stamped super-scribe, and Jesse Eisenberg as the journalist hoping to find the human behind the genius, the repartee is witty, intelligent, frightfully candid and instructively unnerving. And while, alas, we don’t learn the secret of life, there are times during the ongoing dialogue when it seems we just might.
The discourse, set in semi-rural Illinois, where Wallace taught at a university, and in Minneapolis where the book tour alluded to in the title brings them, takes place in rarefied air, the woes, wiles and ebulliences of literature forming the glue of the ensuing affiliation.
One can only hope that Mr. Lipsky’s report, adapted from his book, “Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself,” strikes as accurate a note as is reasonable. After all, there are those aforementioned, inherent constraints. Eisenberg’s acknowledged underling makes no bones about his respectful jealousy, while Mr. Segel’s superbly etched wunderkind is conflicted: He’d like to be the great new breakthrough writer who just so happens to be a regular guy.
Naturally, Lipsky gnaws at this romantic ideal, exclaiming the contradiction in terms. They go at it hook, line and sinker, the battle of the brains, deconstructing every theory about their mutual passion, Wallace congenially but half-heartedly trying to downplay his laurels. In one breath, he’s afraid of how this Boswell might portray him; in the next, he couldn’t care less. Shades of “My Dinner with Andre” (1981), but with a semi-road movie lilt, the two philosophize their way through book signings, radio interviews and a get together with some old gal pals in Minnesota.
But it’s thanks to both principals’ thespic talent and director Ponsoldt’s savvy camera that the talkfest manages an engaging fluidity without even one chase scene, let alone a screen-filling vision of alien invasion. Rather, the devastation is of the psychological variety as the Davids take turns unearthing character nuances and flaws about each other. This inevitably results in a mutual admiration/enmity, each co-protagonist rather happy that they’ve met a worthy adversary who, it’s possible, could become a friend.
Along the way, culled from the conversations Lipsky recorded for his article, the litterateurs ostensibly conduct a movable seminar on the art of writing, tempering here their natural competitiveness in service of the muse that shaped their raison d’être. It’s heady stuff, the kind of thing you heard the smart kids in high school discussing, even though it was lunch break. Wallace and Lipsky mull the whys and wherefores of their chosen profession, questioning the motivation, purpose, method and reward, tacitly seeking justification, approbation and respect.
Playing the so-called normal folk who supply defining contrast to the dueling wordsmiths, Joan Cusack is funny as the Minneapolis promo wonk who makes sure the guys see the statue of Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) joyously tossing up her hat; while Mamie Gummer and Ann Chlumsky play the lady friends who bring out a betraying machismo in our highbrows.
Contributing an ensemble performance that would doubtlessly please the most hifalutin of drama coaches, Messrs. Segel and Eisenberg manage to make invigorating what could have easily become a borefest in lesser hands, with the former unfolding a new actorial leaf. Segel’s nomination-worthy portrayal suggests that there lies ahead a plethora of serious roles…opportunities that hopefully won’t keep him from revisiting the humanistic comedy (i.e. – “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”-2008; “I Love You, Man”-2009) that brought him to prominence.
This fine little preview of those possibilities offers a nice hiatus to the mainstream viewer in need of a palate cleanser, while also providing the film’s built-in art house audience with the sort of meditative cinema they like to cozy up to, sans the nuisance and affectation of subtitles. And, while by no means the be-all and end-all of its niche genre, “The End of the Tour” just may prove a therapeutic beginning for those filmgoers looking to swear off the hollow blockbuster.
“The End of the Tour,” rated R, is an A24 release directed by James Ponsoldt and stars Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg and Joan Cusack. Running time: 106 minutes