Mark Reviews Movies

The End of the Tour


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: James Ponsoldt

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel, Mamie Gummer, Mickey Sumner, Joan Cusack, Anna Chlumsky

MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Running Time: 1:46

Release Date: 7/31/15 (limited); 8/7/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 6, 2015

The fact of David Foster Wallace's suicide lingers throughout The End of the Tour, but it's not in the way one might expect. The film opens in 2008 with the other central character of the story learning of the news. He's stunned, although maybe there's a suggestion that he's not necessarily surprised. It's difficult to discern. His immediate reaction is to seek out tapes with the author's voice on them, which he recorded over the course of a five-day interview with the writer in 1996. Is this man looking for some clue that would explain why Wallace would take his own life at the age of 46, or does he simply want to hear the sound of Wallace's voice, knowing that it will never be heard again except in memories?

The film doesn't tell us. It doesn't need to, and more importantly, it doesn't particularly want to.

A different film on the subject of Wallace might act as a pseudo-psychological postmortem, trying to explain Wallace's personal demons and mental state as a way to rationalize his final act. This film knows better. It knows that there's nothing rational about the suicide of a man who had professional success and a certain level of fame that escapes most people in his line of work. There's no explaining why someone suffering from depression would end his or her own life, because—despite the common fallacy of phrasing that we hear whenever the topic arises—it's not the person deciding. The disease does that part.

This film, written by Donald Margulies and directed by James Ponsoldt, shows restraint when it comes to the subjects that must have been extremely tempting to explore. Down that road, though, lies the possibility of exploitation, and it's clear that both Margulies and Ponsoldt have too much respect for Wallace to give even a second thought about treading down that road.

Instead, the film observes. We can draw our own conclusions about what we see and hear, if we are so inclined. Do we concentrate on a few lines of dialogue in which Wallace mentions a hypothetical death (He would rather be dead than become one of those phony writers who only talk about their writing) and the time he spent in a hospital on suicide watch, or do we instead focus on the rest of what he says? That side of his discussion delves into his thoughts on success, celebrity, culture, his love of teaching, his two dogs, his weekly ritual dancing at a local Baptist church, and his insistence that the only thing he's addicted to is television, which is why there isn't one in his house in Central Illinois. Ponsoldt gives equal significance to both sides.

Margulies' screenplay is adapted from David Lipsky's book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, which presents a transcript of the tape-recorded question-and-answer sessions between Lipsky and Wallace for a rejected feature in Rolling Stone. The formatting must have made some of Margulies' script work a little easier, but this is more than a simple copy-and-paste job.

The film may not possess the traditional concept of a plot. It simply follows Lipsky following Wallace on the final days of a national publicity tour for his recently released novel Infinite Jest, which is more than a 1,000 pages long (not including notes) and, according to a radio DJ who believes such trivia is important, weighs 3 pounds and 3 ounces. That doesn't mean the film is without form. On a primary level, it takes the form of a lengthy conversation, divided by brief pauses as the characters change locales or realize that it's too late to continue, lest they end up exhausted the next day.

There's another level, too, which sees the two characters—the interviewer and the interviewee—adapting to the contrived circumstances of their discussion and to each other. The film doesn't simply give us the content of these conversations, which are fascinating enough on their own merits. It offers up context for and within those discussions—why the characters say what they say, how one character's statements affect the other, what isn't said.

The film is about the relationship between these two men, and it's not an easy one. Both men are writers. Lipsky, who's played by Jesse Eisenberg in the film, has also recently had a book of his published, although it was, by his own admission, a failure. He's jealous of Wallace's success, but he also respects the hell out of him, even though he's convinced that Wallace's humility is a front to disguise the extent of his genius.

Wallace, played by Jason Segel, doesn't trust the man who has come to probe his mind, certain that Lipsky will find a way to twist his words to craft the best copy. He's also uncertain of how much to reveal, especially when it comes to the subjects of his time in the hospital, rumors of a heroin addiction, and his romantic life.

Both men like each other enough for the ideas to flow, but each is also intimidated by the other. A clash (or two or three) is inevitable, and it's only a question of what will spur it, why, and how it will escalate.

Both Eisenberg and Segel excel here. Like the formatting of Lipsky's book for the screenplay, one imagines that those tapes of the interview sessions could serve as a simple crutch for the actors, but there's no sense of the hollowness of mimicry present in these performances. Besides, it's difficult, if not impossible, for an actor to convincingly fake intelligence, and these two go beyond recitation of the words, giving us a genuine sense of on-the-fly musings and observations. There are characters behind those words, too—a skeptical, uncertain Lipsky and a soulful, wounded Wallace.

The film shares the same view of Wallace as Lipsky has of the author in the bookend scenes. It doesn't presume to know him apart from or beyond this particular, brief period of time when the two men talked and shared and argued for hours on end under artificial conditions. We feel as if we come to know Wallace by the conclusion of The End of the Tour, yet so much of him remains a mystery—just another example of our limited ability to really know another human being.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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