First, a note from the writer:
I hope you’ve all been enjoying your summers; mine has been quite busy to say the least. On top of the usual summer happenings, in the last few months I started a new job and got engaged. It’s all been wonderfully hectic and hectically wonderful, but these events coupled with the typical summer lull in quality films ended up creating an over 5 month gap in Moving Pictures publications, a pattern which I am now very happy to interrupt. This will be a relatively short review, but it will be followed in the coming weeks by a very meaty piece that I’ve been chipping away at for some time: The 21 Best Films of the 21st Century.
With summer drawing to a close we’re careening headlong into the beginning of awards season. There will be lots to talk and write about in the coming months and I’m excited to share it all with Moving Pictures’ readers, and I hope very much to hear your thoughts as well. Thank you, as always, for reading.
My knowledge of David Foster Wallace is more so as an icon, a literary legend, than as an actual writer. His first novel, The Broom of the System, was the inaugural selection of a short lived booked club I participated in several years ago, and I admit that I only made it about halfway through. I didn’t dislike it, and it wasn’t impenetrable, it just didn’t pull me in hard enough to urge me towards the conclusion. My cursory understanding of the author remains based on the facts (and lore) of his life: young, midwestern college professor publishes 1,000+ page opus Infinite Jest in the mid 90s; book has major impact on the literary world while author is thrust into the media spotlight; author has recurring struggles with depression; author commits suicide in 2008 having never published another completed novel. This is, of course, a facile description of Wallace’s life and career and does little to get at who the man really was, which is why The End of the Tour was, for me, such a fascinating film.
Aside from the cliched flashback framing, The End of the Tour eschews most biopic tropes. A major reason for this is the film’s source material: the non-fiction book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by Rolling Stone staffer David Lipsky, the bulk of which consists of transcripts of recorded conversations between the journalist and author during the final few days of the latter’s Infinite Jest book tour. The primary source basis and narrative framework for which it allows creates a film mostly involving one-on-one conversations, and it’s fertile ground for two very talented actors. Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky is fantastic as usual; though never a chameleon actor, his ability to access and exude authentic emotion helps counter the fact that his own personality, speech patterns and mannerisms come through very strongly in all of his roles. He also happens to be perfectly cast as the ambitious journalist. It’s Jason Segel as Wallace, however, in a mesmerizing and career upending performance, who does the real shape shifting. The look, the physicality, the voice, and most importantly the depth of emotion, allow the actor’s persona to completely recede. His facial expressions, the way he pauses mid sentence, corrects and censors himself, the cadence of his speech, the beat of the words, it’s all so real. I watched some videos of Wallace to gauge Segel’s impression, but it’s not really even an impression; or rather, it’s more than an impression. He has the glasses and the hair and the bandana (if anything I think he goes a tad overboard on the accent), but what Segel’s created is not just a likeness of Wallace, it’s an authentic voice. The fact that much of the dialogue comes straight from recorded conversations is more than a device, it gives the actors a reason to believe what they’re saying and focus primarily on embodying the real life characters they portray. Though some of Wallace’s loved ones and fans have protested the very concept of a feature film portrayal of the author, citing his own beliefs on celebrity and fame, I can’t help but think of the end product as a truly honest attempt to convey his personal philosophy in a uniquely unfettered way.
The End of the Tour is about many things (loneliness, fame, friendship, the creative process) but the framework is simple: a dialogue. As tight and professional as the film looks, director James Ponsoldt’s camera draws little attention to itself; this is the right move. Donald Margulies’s screenplay does a canny job of blending the tones of the firsthand conversations and the ones that required recreation or invention. But ultimately this is an actors’ film, and as a viewer it struck me early on that I was watching two of the best performances of the year.