The End of the Tour

It’s not often we get a film that touches on porn, Alanis Morissette, Broken Arrow and deep, meaningful discussions on the human condition. Jason Segel and Academy Award nominee Jesse Eisenberg star in The End of the Tour.

The End of the TourCast of Characters:
David Foster Wallace – Jason Segel
David Lipsky – Jesse Eisenberg
Bookstore Manager – Becky Ann Baker
Sarah – Anna Chlumsky
Patty – Joan Cusack
Julie – Mamie Gummer
David Lipsky’s Editor – Ron Livingston
Betsy – Mickey Sumner

Director – James Ponsoldt
Screenplay – Donald Margulies
Based on the memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky
Producer – David Kanter, Matt DeRoss, James Dahl, Mark Manuel & Ted O’Neal
Rated R for language including some sexual references

In 1996, critics and readers alike are hailing the new novel from David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), Infinite Jest. Though he is skeptical at first by what he sees as nothing more than overblown hype, Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) succumbs to the hype as well after finally reading it. Persuading his editor (Ron Livingston) to setup an interview with the acclaimed author, Lipsky is sent to the outskirts of Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, where for the next few days he interviews Wallace during the final appearance of his book tour.

I was eleven when David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest came out in 1996, and being that back then my page-turning jams had R. L. Stine’s name slapped on the covers, I was never a part of the “in crowd” that massively hyped up Wallace’s thousand-page novel, which in turn made him a literary celebrity. The popularity of his encyclopedic, footnote-riddled endurance test was such that many either carried the book around with them or had it placed prominently on their bookshelf for all their friends to see, even if they never actually read it entirely or even at all for that matter. Yeah, I guess it was that big a deal.

The End of the Tour marks the third biopic I’ve seen this year, the other two centering around Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and the hip-hop group N.W.A. On paper, and even onscreen, a biopic of David Foster Wallace is by far the least “sexy” of the three, but it’s also the best of the three as well as one of the best films of the year.

This film really isn’t so much a biopic like we tend to think of them as. This isn’t about Wallace’s life (though, after doing a little homework, there’s enough to his life and work to do a legitimate biopic of him), or an analyzing of what caused him to commit suicide in 2008 (prior to his suicide, his father revealed that he’d been battling depression for over twenty years), but instead a brief slice of his life that took place during the promoting of Infinite Jest.

Director James Ponsoldt is now three for three, following the overlooked Smashed and 2013’s The Spectacular Now. Both he and writer Donald Margulies, adapting from David Lipsky’s memoir, have crafted a film that’s purely dialogue driven, and Ponsoldt wisely avoids the urge to showcase his direction with needless conventional biopic checkpoints (though he still manages to show a keen sense of the ’90s time period). Most of it centers around conversations between Lipsky and Wallace, with much of the scripted dialogue taken from the actual interviews, and the result is utterly captivating. From Margulies’s script to the performances bringing it to life, you’re drawn in to every word that’s spoken.

The heart of this film is the dynamic between Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel, and although there is a bond that develops between their two characters, it’s one that’s not without its boundaries. David Lipsky, like any journalist, has an agenda and that agenda is his story, and a little jealously over interviewing the writer he always wishes he could’ve become might play into that as well (to be fair, the one artistic liberty Margulies makes is that Lipsky’s novel The Art Fair was actually named one of Time’s best books of the year, whereas here you’re made to believe all copies of it were shoved into a Barnes & Noble bargain bin on the day of its release). On the other end, as amiable as Wallace is, he remains guarded against the journalistic tricks he knows all too well. He enjoys the time he spends with Lipsky, but he realizes at the end of the day, it’s all about the published story.

“This is nice… but it’s not real.”

Jesse Eisenberg seems a little too perfect for the part of Lipsky, considering it’s the type of brainy, insecure, self-absorbed role we’ve seen him play time and time again (I’ll still take it over the hot mess that was American Ultra any day). On-the-nose casting or not, the chemistry Eisenberg shares opposite Segel is undeniably strong, and he ably provides a character that isn’t always likeable with some much-needed humanity.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, Judd Apatow protege Jason Segel has been a dependable go-to guy for affable comedic roles. The End of the Tour is for him what Moneyball was for Jonah Hill. Segel gives an impressive, career best performance, one that just might and most definitely should merit Oscar consideration for Best Actor. Even though it takes place over the course of a few days, we’re given enough insight into Wallace’s brilliant, eerily prescient yet troubled mind. This was a man that was fascinated by fame and pop culture, yet also terrified of it; one that carried with him inner, addictive demons, yet was also just a down-to-earth, funny guy who loves his two dogs, Die Hard and Alanis Morissette. There’s not the slightest ounce of phony biopic subject imitating shown by Segel; he disappears into a wonderfully nuanced, sometimes heartbreaking performance.

Segel could easily make a career out of doing comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall or I Love You, Man. They’re great films and he’s great in them, and of course, he should keep doing comedies provided they’re not named Sex Tape. But performances like what he gives here are sure to open more doors for him to where he no longer has to depend on his comedic comfort zone. Sure, the big hitters of the lineup – Johnny Depp in Black Mass, Tom Hardy in Legend, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant – have yet to bat, but Segel’s turn here is the best male performance I’ve seen so far this year.

As small and quiet as The End of the Tour is compared to other biopics, it’s easily the most emotionally absorbing of any of the other ones that have been released in 2015 thanks to James Ponsoldt’s understated direction, Donald Margulies’s rich, insightful screenplay and two pitch-perfect performances from Jesse Eisenberg and an Oscar-worthy Jason Segel. It says a great deal of the talent handling this film when they can make a series of conversational setpieces just as riveting, and perhaps even more so than any blockbuster I’ve seen this summer.

I give The End of the Tour an A (★★★½).

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