Here’s the best advice for watching director James Ponsoldt’s newest film The End of the Tour: Sit up-close.
Another gem from A24 films, Tour is a thoroughly compelling depiction of the 1996 five day road-trip interview of Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace by Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky. That may sound like something of a head-scratcher as a subject for film, yet The Spectacular Now (2013) director’s respect for the material, the film’s smooth pacing, and unexpectedly charismatic performances from the leads allow for a faithful translation of the two men’s personalities, writing styles, and the issues they explore during the copious downtime spent together on the last leg of Wallace’s book tour.
The conversation flows easily, exploring Wallace’s philosophical outlook and personal convictions, and their application in normative ethics, replicating Wallace’s trademark deep yet easy to digest delivery. This is mumblecore having grown up and gone back to finish its degree.
The film begins with Jesse Eisenberg’s Lipsky as a green journalist determined to find a subject for his first big article at Rolling Stone. A well educated and published author himself, Lipsky’s girlfriend suggests he read Infinite Jest. Just a few pages in, skeptical her suggestion could impress a writer with an advanced degree, Lipsky bluntly resigns himself subordinate. “Shit.”
The book is so good, he convinces his editor that Rolling Stone should feature an interview with Wallace, under Lipsky’s own by-line.
Wallace (Jason Segel) is solitary and taciturn, most comfortable in rural Illinois, surrounded by his dogs and the snow swept landscape. The pair are excited to meet each other, while Wallace is as cautious as Lipsky is admiring. Being a writer himself, Lipsky harbors a deep interest in exploring Wallace’s talent, while Wallace’s enforced detachment induces suspicion of Lipsky’s motives. Conversations wander to the challenges of awkwardness and sincerity, authenticity of image, the pitfalls of fame, and the influence of the internet which had just started invading people’s homes. The writers explore philosophic and professional issues, diverting from one intense topic to something tangential, domestic, or mundane yet the flow feels natural and effortless. Personal issues such as depression and addiction lead to questions of religion, entertainment and commercialism. Wallace explores the question of how to live fully and enjoy life beyond rudimentary solipsism. As Jason Segel has mentioned, and many often agree, Wallace gives us words for complex thoughts and feelings we all have, but didn’t know how to express.
However it came about, Segel and Eisenberg prove excellent in their roles. Defying usual Hollywood convention, the actors are actually less traditionally handsome than the real world writers they portray – making them more accessible to the average viewer. Wallace himself would likely endorse that effort towards authenticity versus deification. Eisenberg exudes the enthusiasm and drive of a young journalist, torn between his admiration for his talented subject and his journalist duty to investigate the man’s less admirable traits. Segel’s lithium infused performance may be even more compelling, perhaps because it’s so consistently low key – defying what we’ve seen in everything else he’s done.
Staging and cinematography further immerse the viewer in the conversation. Camerawork features mid shots often, and mid-close shots when the conversation becomes more intimate, or contentious. The combination of subdued lighting and settings, the natural performances, the close camerawork, and the free-flowing conversational style draw the viewer in, and hold us there.
Some elements in the film feel more symbolic than literal, leaving us to wonder how authentic they might be. Once Wallace is finally comfortable having Lipsky around, he offers half his pop-tart, which Lipsky is reluctant to accept. Wallace insists. Lipsky relents. It might have happened, but it evokes a sense of taking of communion – a theme Wallace might likely appreciate: “Take this pop-tart, it is my body. Smoke this cigarette, it is my blood.” Wallace has accepted Lipsky as a kindred spirit. Lipsky nibbles at snacks simultaneously seeming tentative and enthusiastic, and they chain-smoke their way through the book tour. A number of driving scenes fill the screen with the bright, blaring signs of fast food restaurants stretching to the horizon.
Early in the film, Ponsoldt uses a tracking shot – left to right – of Lipsky walking through a parking garage to a rental car. The drab concrete and geometric shapes parallel the structured, methodical process of a journalist. Near the end of the film, the pair walk Wallace’s dogs through a snowy field. A footpath is clear, traversing the field diagonally across the screen. Partway along, they pause and Lipsky surveys the countryside Wallace knows from so many trips before. “I’d better get back,” Lipsky remarks. He has that article to write.
Is the field just a field, or is that path Wallace’s exploration of the world from a slanted perspective? Is Jesse Eisenberg really that inelegant at smoking, or was Lipsky that determined to immerse himself in Wallace’s world? Is it true (as presented in the film) that Wallace dabbled in lighter drugs, but had never been a heroin addict as a number of articles had alleged? Is the pop-tart just a pop-tart?
With such relatable characters and so many rich ideas, it may encourage exploration of Lipsky’s work as well as the works for which Wallace has become so revered.
Until then, The End of the Tour opens 8/21 at the Spectrum in Albany, where you can get a hot tea and carrot cake, or maybe a coffee and some twizzlers, grab a seat right up close to the screen, and sit in for a couple of hours on the most entertaining conversation you’ll see this year.
Footnote: The editors at Rolling Stone decided not to publish the story about Wallace, and Lipsky filed away his cassettes in a closet. The two never meet again. Four years later Rolling Stone asks Wallace to write for the magazine, covering the John McCain presidential campaign, as well as 9/11.