'The End of the Tour': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel in 'The End of the Tour'
A gorgeous portrait of the artist as reluctant subject

Jason Segel plays tragic genius David Foster Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg the Rolling Stone reporter whose aborted profile of him became a highly personal eulogy.

Many journalists who have written feature profiles of public figures will have experienced that light-bulb moment, once the cautious mutual-assessment phase is concluded and you start digging for the meat, when the subject perhaps casually reveals some illuminating aspect of him- or herself around which the entire article can be built. Those moments come thick and fast in The End of the Tour, James Ponsoldt’s exquisitely elegiac film about David Foster Wallace, examined over the course of a five-day interview with Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky, 12 years before the influential writer’s suicide in 2008 at age 46.

The same compassionate observation of human imperfections that distinguished Ponsoldt’s films Smashed and The Spectacular Now makes him an ideal interpreter of this material, while playwright Donald Margulies’ thoughtful screenplay brings tremendous insight into the way writers’ minds work. This is no conventional biodrama about the tortured artist, but very much the film that lovers of Wallace’s dazzlingly perspicacious fiction and essays would want.

Over the opening scenes, Jesse Eisenberg, playing Lipsky, describes reading Wallace as feeling “your eyelids pulled open,” and providing the actual sensation “of being David Foster Wallace.” That process of osmosis is an accurate enough description of what the filmmakers achieve, invaluably assisted by Jason Segel’s heartbreaking portrayal of the writer. This is a man of endless contradictions; he’s shaggy and sleepy-headed but sharp and always questioning, wryly candid but then unexpectedly defensive and guarded. The performance is easily Segel’s best work since Freaks and Geeks, devastating strictly on its own quiet terms.

While The End of the Tour is structured as a quasi-road movie with a post-mortem framing device, in many ways, this is not inherently cinematic subject matter. The film considers such intangibles as the illusory bond of friendship between ambitious interviewer and celebrated subject, professional envy, the loneliness of writing, the mental transference of reading, and the sheer exhilarating buzz of stimulating two-way conversation.

It also doesn’t shy away from the great themes that defined Wallace’s work, solitude in first position. It adopts the late writer’s perspective as the apologetic representative of a privileged, over-educated generation frequently destined to find disappointment in achievement. And it conveys the prescience of his vision of evolving information technology, foreseeing a future in which smart people would be in danger of spending their lives sitting alone, “immersed in pure unalloyed pleasure.” Essentially, this is a film about existential emptiness, and yet it’s beautiful and alive, as filled with humor as it is with melancholy.

Having read the rhapsodic reviews of Wallace’s encyclopedic 1,079-page 1996 novel Infinite Jest and then been somewhat crushed to find they weren’t exaggerating, Lipsky, himself a published fiction author of more modest success, pitched a feature to Rolling Stone, a magazine with scant history of profiling writers. He accompanied Wallace on the final leg of his book tour, but the interview was never published, its intimate revelations surfacing only later as a memoir following the subject’s untimely death.

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A handful of actors make lovely impressions in small roles, among them Anna Chlumsky as Lipsky’s girlfriend, Mickey Sumner as Wallace’s grad-school pal, Mamie Gummer as another longtime friend and admirer, Becky Ann Baker as a Twin Cities bookstore manager and Joan Cusack as Wallace’s amusingly down-to-earth driver on that final tour stop. But this is basically a two-hander, powered by the mercurial chemistry between Wallace and Lipsky, and the two actors playing them.

The assignment takes Lipsky from New York to the untidy home on the sparse, snowbound outskirts of Bloomington, IL, where Wallace is living with his two big goofy dogs. Their interactions are tentative at first, with Wallace voicing his circumspect feelings about the interview by suggesting he’d like to write a profile on the people who have attempted to profile him. But gradually, over diner meals and shared pop tarts, junk food binges and long freeway drives, a semblance of trust, respect and even affection develops. That is until Lipsky crosses a line and Wallace withdraws, adding bittersweet notes to their final day together.

The body language of the two leads could hardly be more of a contrast. Eisenberg is small and wiry, febrile in his intensity and always observing. He makes Lipsky both worshipful and slightly predatory, but he never loses the audience’s sympathy; his character clearly believes that a genuine relationship has been formed and, for as long as possible, he resists the urging of his editor (Ron Livingston) to grill Wallace about rumors of his heroin addiction.

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Segel’s large frame towers over Eisenberg. He ambles about in Wallace’s guise of granny glasses, straggly hippie hair wrapped in a bandana, and anti-fashion apparel that marks him as resistant to his cresting fame, as does his unpretentious Midwestern speech. The actor has a way of switching in an instant from easygoing banter into an accusatory stare whenever the character feels his privacy is being violated. A scene during a plane trip, in which Wallace speaks frankly about his bouts of depression, his drinking and his experience on suicide-watch is profoundly moving. But there are countless such moments when a handful of incisive words provide affecting windows.

For a movie that’s almost entirely driven by talk, this has a graceful fluidity thanks to Jakob Ihre’s elegant widescreen cinematography and Darrin Navarro’s editing, moving the action smoothly from place to place with unerring rhythm. And Danny Elfman’s gentle score serves to delicately coax out the story’s underlying sorrow. Lively song selections also punctuate the film, including a raucous Alanis Morissette shout-out, prompted by Wallace’s fandom, but tellingly catching him in a moment of brooding introspection.

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In the canon of movie portraits of oddball artists, this one in its generosity of spirit, its soulfulness and effortless assimilation of a particular literary style recalls American Splendor, the wonderful tribute by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman to underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar. That idiosyncratic discovery was a highlight of Sundance 2003, and The End of the Tour seems likely to be among the best of this year’s crop. Ponsoldt is a known quantity at this point, but his latest film — picked up for U.S. distribution by A24 on the day of its premiere — is a significant step forward, its rewards amplified by its emotional restraint.

Production companies: Anonymous Content Productions, in association with Modern Man Films

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel, Anna Chlumsky, Mamie Gummer, Mickey Sumner, Joan Cusack, Ron Livingston, Becky Ann Baker

Director: James Ponsoldt

Screenwriter: Donald Margulies, based on David Lipsky’s book, ‘Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace’

Producers: David Kanter, Matt DeRoss, James Dahl, Mark Manuel, Ted O’Neal

Executive producers: Paul Green, Donald Margulies, Ann Ruark

Director of photography: Jakob Ihre

Production designer: Gerald Sullivan

Costume designer: Emma Potter

Music: Danny Elfman

Editor: Darrin Navarro

Casting: Avy Kaufman

Sales: WME/UTA

No rating, 106 minutes.