From which there is no return…reflections on “The End of the Tour”

 

James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour” is a biopic about David Lipsky accompanying author David Foster Wallace on the final leg of his “Infinite Jest” book tour. It is also among the smartest road movies I’ve seen, as well as a fine if unintentional entrant into the buddy movie/bromance genre. While I had every expectation of liking the film, as it was my pick for this week’s film club, I was very pleasantly surprised by its subtlety and warmth in the face of challenging personalities and often uncomfortable material.

The movie begins with Lipsky, played by the perpetually jittery Jesse Eisenberg, receiving a call relaying an unconfirmed rumor of Wallace’s death. Lipsky does what anyone would do upon hearing this kind of scuttlebutt – he searches the web for confirmation. This leads to a segment where he digs in a closet for the interview recordings from his (unpublished) piece, cannibalizing the batteries from his electric toothbrush to power the tape recorder. The scene then transitions to 1996 and Lipsky lobbying his unnamed editor for the opportunity to interview Wallace. Lipsky begins his full-frontal assault on the unspecified editor, played by Ron Livingston, asking if he knows how many author interviews have appeared in Rolling Stone in the 10 years prior. The answer? None. Despite his reservations and protestations that author interviews aren’t a focus of Rolling Stone, the editor gives Lipsky the go-ahead to make arrangements for the interview.

Lipsky’s first encounter with Wallace is telling, if a misdirectional. Lipsky phones Wallace, played by Jason Segel, to report that he’s gotten lost on the way to Foster’s home near Normal, Illinois. Wallace asks Lipsky how he managed to obtain his unlisted number, and promptly suggests that Lipsky do him a favor and lose it. Lipsky eventually finds his way to Wallace’s house, where the author claims that he was “95% joking”.

Eisenberg and Segel share a friendly if often uneasy rapport, their conversations winding through the topics of fame, the expectations surrounding it, and the transactional and often impersonal relationship the author shares with fans. Segel captures the mammalian charm of the author on unsure footing with regard to his suddenly higher profile, saying in one breath that he’s enjoy having a female fan tell him that she’s coming to his hotel room, and then lamenting the loneliness that would ensue from such an assignation. He’s umistakably masculine without seeming predatory. Lipsky shares details of his own romantic dilemma, being involved in a long-distance relationship with one woman while living with another.

Eisenberg nails the insecurity of a less successful author trying to manage both disbelief and jealousy over the laissez faire response Wallace exhibits to his sudden commercial viability. The two parry over whether Wallace’s “regular guy” persona is false modesty or a legitimate belief by Wallace that he isn’t as smart as others believe him to be.  The pair also spars over Wallace’s perception of the more social Lipsky and his interactions with Betsy, a former flame and classmate of Wallace’s who attends his book reading in the Twin Cities. Wallace believes that Lipsky is flirting with Betsy, while Lipsky maintains that he’s gathering background information for the article. This comes across as only partially believable given Lipsky’s complicated domestic arrangement.

The movie is not without its flaws. At a brisk 106 minutes the film gives short shrift to Lipsky’s on-screen girlfriend, played by the always delightful Anna Chlumsky, as well as to any deep characterization of the supporting roles. The decision not to publish the interview, as well as the rationale behind killing the piece, are completely glossed over. Other than a charming anecdote where Wallace mails a shoe Lipsky left in Illinois back to him in New York, the relationship between the two in the 12 years between the trip and Wallace’s death is a mystery.

Segel mostly shines as the famously introverted and perpetually vexed Wallace. He doesn’t quite embody the intellect, or nail down the soft yet rapid-fire cadence of Wallace’s speech. At times he appears to be channeling a less bro-ey version of HIMYM’s Marshall Eriksen in the role, but his passion for embodying the late author without resorting to imitation is undeniable.

Ponsoldt continues to capture lightning in a bottle by making films that shouldn’t succeed but do, eschewing Hollywood tropes with a naturalistic approach to platonic and romantic intimacy between his characters. The script, by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Donald Margulies (and Ponsoldt’s playwriting professor at Yale), is sharp yet understated, the dialogue smart without sounding Sorkinesque and artificial.

 

 

 

 

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