Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Review: "The End of the Tour"

“The End of the Tour” is simultaneously a great character study and possibly the best portrait of writers I’ve ever seen.

It’s essentially a two-person conversation that takes place over the course of five days in 1996. Both are youngish men who have recently published books. One is famous, the other is not. The less celebrated one is writing a profile of the famous one for Rolling Stone magazine while he finishes up his book tour.

They grow friendly, but jealousy and resentment are always close at hand. They circle each other warily, tribal companions and combatants harboring their own stakes and agendas. Theirs is a magnificent, haunting dance of intellects and emotions.

David Foster Wallace is the celebrated novelist, whose “Infinite Jest” has just been released to spectacular acclaim and predictions of major awards. His dense, playful style of writing, replete with extensive endnotes and citations, seemed a precursor to today’s hyperlinked, hyperactive style of information consumption.

He plays up his regular-guy image, teaching at an unremarkable Illinois state college, wearing bandanas and hanging out with his slobbering dogs and select friends. Wallace killed himself in 2008 at age 46.

David Lipsky is the interviewer, a few years younger and whose own novel, “The Art Fair,” has been much more modestly received. An early scene shows him reciting at a sparsely-attended book reading, so later when he looks out over the packed room for Wallace’s final book tour appearance, we understand how that stiffens his spine.

In Wallace, Lipsky beholds someone more accomplished and wants to capture that, understand it, and thereby ensure his own ascent.

Director James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”) and screenwriter Donald Margulies reveal many things about both men in “The End of the Tour,” but also hold back in other ways. For instance, Wallace never produced another novel while alive. (An unfinished work was published posthumously.) He mostly turned to nonfiction and essays, even penning for Rolling Stone.

Meanwhile, Lipsky’s article was never actually published in the magazine. The interview essentially became memories and a box of old tape recordings. Lipsky dug them out after Wallace’s passing and turned it into the book, “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” upon which this movie is based.

Jason Segel plays Wallace. Yes, that Jason Segel – the pants-dropping comic everyman of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and TV’s “How I Met Your Mother.” If you can’t conceive of him giving a layered, dramatic turn, just remember that many funnymen have gone on to become serious actors. I believe this film will do for Segel what “Moscow on the Hudson” did for Robin Williams.

It’s a career-changing, stand-up-and-take-notice kind of performance.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky. It’s a tight, precise portrayal, the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from the actor from “The Social Network.” His Lipsky is nebbishy and charming, sort of a modern-day Woody Allen type. He’s ambitious and can be ruthless when pushed, but he genuinely likes Wallace and wants to get inside his head.

Plot-wise, the story essentially just follows Lipsky as he follows Wallace to Minneapolis for the last leg of his book tour. They spend almost every minute together, driving in cars, riding in planes, hanging in the downtime. Lipsky keeps his recorder going the whole time, an old-style cassette job with an oversized microphone, one of which every journalist of a certain age probably has stashed somewhere. The tape machine becomes a virtual third character, an omnipresent reminder that their conversations are “on the record” and posterity is listening.

The men talk about writing, depression, addiction, sex, television, having kids, the intangible appeal of Alanis Morissette and other topics. It’s fascinating to watch the tidal ebb and flow of trust, as Wallace starts out very reticent to reveal himself, then slowly opens up, only to recede back into himself when he starts to think Lipsky is playing him.

And Lipsky is playing him -- from a journalistic perspective. He peeks into the guy’s medicine cabinet and writes down the contents, makes notes after a middle-of-the-night heartfelt conversation, and declines to order an alcoholic beverage because, he tells Wallace, he respects the 12-step process. It’s Lipsky’s way of letting Wallace know he knows about past substance abuse problems.

These are the sorts of things reporters routinely do as part of the job that outsiders would doubtless regard as monumentally crummy. Intrusive? You just defined journalism.

Better than any film I can think of, “The End of the Tour” captures and crystallizes what it’s like to be inside the head of people who live through words. Eisenberg and Segel are magnificent conduits into the writer’s darkest corners.

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