The End of the Tour is a movie for grown-ups

August 20, 2015

The End of the Tour
91
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segal, Joan Cusack, Mamie Gummer, Mickey Sumner, Becky Ann Baker, Ron Livingston
Director: James Pondsoldt
Rating: R, for language including some sexual references
Running time: 106 minutes

Every suicide is essentially a math problem, a basic formula that may be complicated by any number of variables. Whenever the pain of existence exceeds the perceived utility of living, a person might consider looking for an exit. If you know only a little about David Foster Wallace, you know he committed suicide in 2008. You know he was some kind of writer and he wore a bandanna on his head.

The-End-of-the-Tour-poster-courtesy-A24If you know anything else about Dave Wallace, as he presented himself, you probably have read — or tried to read — his books and essays. And so, as the dialogue between journalist and interviewee in the beautifully restrained The End of the Tour suggests, you have, for as long a time as you immersed yourself in the work, become David Foster Wallace — you have felt how he apprehended an onrushing world, reality’s cold sting. You have ridden along with his loop-de-looping mind, harnessed safely in as he performed his aerobatics. If you have read Wallace, you know him — at least a little.

In the film, a writer named David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) decides in 1996 to confront the phenomenon of David Foster Wallace, who had just published Infinite Jest, a 1,079-page novel of astounding sweep and ambition. So he convinces his editor at Rolling Stone (Ron Livingston) to send him to the Midwest to profile the apparently reluctant new star. He spends parts of five days with Wallace (Jason Segal, who provides a performance likely to alter the course of his amiable career), accompanying the author to Minneapolis, the final stop on his book tour.

Lipsky recorded some of the conversations he had with Wallace over this period, but the story never saw print until after Wallace’s death 12 years later. Then Lipsky turned it first into an elegiac article that won a National Magazine Award and later the book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. Playwright Donald Margulies adapted the book into the screenplay for this film, directed by James Pondsoldt (Off the Black, The Spectacular Now).

Pondsoldt, who isn’t yet 40 years old, has said in interviews that he wants to make movies for grownups, and he has certainly accomplished that here. More than any movie I can remember, it feels true to the mixed emotions that are an inherent part of the interview process. Lipsky begins with an admixture of envy and appreciation for Wallace’s talent and achievement; Wallace receives him with suspicion undercut by eagerness.

Both are aware of the transactional nature of the encounter, both understand that their interests are not exactly congruent. Lipsky is hoping for the best story he can write, and Wallace understands the need to cooperate with the publicity machinery but he also hopes to present himself as unpretentious and indifferent to the unreality of the star-maker machinery even as he’s being processed by it.

This is a movie where people talk. It is a movie about how people talk, how they deflect and parry and probe and insinuate their way toward some mutual understanding. When Lipsky first calls for directions to Wallace’s nondescript, untidy ranch house on the snowy prairies outside Bloomington, Ill., Wallace suggests he lose his unlisted number. It’s only half a joke — it hangs in the air like a threat.

But after Lipsky arrives, and Wallace’s two dogs seem to take to Lipsky, he slowly warms, inviting the writer to stay in his spare room rather than chancing the motel chain down the road. The exchanges are tentative at first, with Wallace suggesting that perhaps it would be more interesting were he to profile the reporters who had come to interview him than the other way around.

As Lipsky, Eisenberg is ferret-quick and nimble, necessarily predatory but deeply empathetic to his subject. He knows that in order to do his job he has to establish some sort of rapport with Wallace, but he’s also genuinely in thrall to the guy. Maybe he suspects — as does the audience — that Wallace’s Alanis Morissette-loving, regular-guy persona is a kind of armor. Maybe he feels, as a journalist, duty bound to find a chink in it. A scene near the end where he takes advantage of Wallace’s brief absence to inventory the contents of his house — specific details with which he might later season his article — perfectly encapsulates the parasitic nature of the work. Lipsky sucks up the scene; to him his subject’s life (and his pain) is raw material.

A less skilled actor might make the vampiric reporter seem venal, but Eisenberg is able to enlist our empathy. He carries us through the film, and it is through Lipsky that we perceive the enigmatic, heartbreaking Wallace. Were this a conventional film, when what would be the beginning of the third act, Lipsky transgresses and provokes what seems to be an overreaction in Wallace, we feel the sting of the lost favor.

There are a number of brief and lovely turns in the film — Anna Chlumsky shows up as Lipsky’s girlfriend, the Wallace fan who provides the initial impetus for the piece, while Mickey Sumner and Mamie Gummer appear as old friends of Wallace. Joan Cusack plays Wallace’s delightfully unpretentious driver on the final tour stop, happily pointing out the street corner where Mary Tyler Moore famously tossed her hat into the air.

To be sure, a lot of moviegoers — maybe most — aren’t going to put up with a movie that essentially consists of two self-consciously smart guys talking to each other about writing. If it doesn’t sound thrilling, maybe you’ll want to sit this one out, no harm, no foul. But for a certain kind of person, The End of the Tour will be one of those movies that you carry with you for the rest of your life.

It is about being alone in the world and being self-consciously aware of your aloneness and the helplessness of maintaining any sort of connection. Because it uses real names and purports to depict actual events — most, if not all, of the dialogue between Lipsky and Wallace was transcribed from Lipsky’s tape recordings — it is susceptible to claims that it misrepresents some facts. Wallace could be an unreliable narrator; there’s a scene near the end that Lipsky could not possibly have witnessed. The sample size is small — you can’t know anyone based on five days on the road.

That doesn’t concern me. I’m aware of the relatively minor controversies the movie has engendered, controversies that might have been averted had the filmmakers simply used fake names. I don’t know precisely how accurate The End of the Tour is, I only know how true it feels.


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