The End of the Tour (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
6Nov/150

The End of the Tour (2015)

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The phone rings, David Lipsky answers, and is told David Foster Wallace is dead.  Wallace, a man who grew to become a modern literary titan, was once a college professor in a small town who agreed to an interview with Lipsky.  The End of the Tour is about the time they spent together, and how the Midwest fosters lonely intelligence in its most sensitive citizens.  James Ponsoldt directs from a screenplay written by Donald Margulies and stars Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel.

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"I'm sure that I still have those same parts in me, guess I'm trying really hard to find a way not to let them drive."

The first time we meet David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) in The End of the Tour nature has done a fine job in helping Wallace wall himself off from the rest of the world.  He's practically trapped behind a mountain of snow, and what warmth the frame has comes from the breath of Wallace and his dogs.  When he invites David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) in to start the interview Wallace dispenses some pleasantries before saying, "I guess I should offer you some tea," before retreating into the corner.

Director James Ponsoldt keeps Wallace small, hunkered in the corner, arms crossed while shots from Lipsky's perception place Eisenberg in full bloom in the center of the frame.  Even without the excellent dialogue to follow the difference between the two is clear.  Lipsky is aware of the fiction of this arranged meeting and how the pleasantries must go to get his work done, Wallace knows any connection he forms with this man will involve waking up parts of himself he'd prefer lay dormant.  While the two sort out their relationship the snow beats heavy on Wallace's home walls, when they go outside they'll feel the crunch of the frozen ground, and the Midwest makes itself known as a character just as smart and sensitive as Wallace.

Several times Eisenberg is framed against a firm wall, forcing his Lipsky to look at the surroundings and reevaluate just what kind of man Wallace is.

Several times Eisenberg is framed against a firm wall, forcing his Lipsky to look at the surroundings and reevaluate just what kind of man Wallace is.

Whether The End of the Tour functions well as a biopic of Wallace I will leave others to decide, because biopics by their nature will never sum up the "essence" of a person.  But what Ponsoldt and Segel do is create a vision of Wallace that shows the loneliness of the Midwest.  How someone so smart and so empathetic could be trapped with books and a lamp with no shade and venture out to try and connect to people through the pageantry of our daily lives.  Knowing how Wallace's life ended makes this attempt all the more tragic, as he was never able to make peace with the aspect of his life which gave him such insight and drove him to despair.

Director Ponsoldt and screenwriter Donald Margulies similarly realize how foolhardy it is to try and get to the "real Wallace" through The End of the Tour.  At best we'd be getting to Wallace through a complicated game of telephone as The End of the Tour is based on a book based on a series of interviews done with Wallace nearly two decades prior to its publication.  This is where Ponsoldt's decision to make the landscape of The End of the Tour a character an important one.  Instead of focusing on the specifics of Wallace's life Ponsoldt shows how someone as smart and sensitive as Wallace could blossom in such an unforgiving place.

The details are so perfect it awoke waves of bittersweet nostalgia within me.  There was the Denny's-like restaurant where the clang of dishes meets cigarette smoke and guarded servers serve coffee to keep the patrons warm.  I spent so many weeks in places like that talking about whatever we wanted to talk about and playing games until the sun came up.  The restaurant in The End of the Tour isn't real, but Ponsoldt creates its personality with such specific detail it might as well be.  It's a fiction I can accept alongside my memory - which is a bit of consumerist nostalgia I think Wallace might have appreciated.

This ability to carefully highlight the real from the unreal fuels much of Ponsoldt's intriguing editing decisions in The End of the Tour.  Lipsky seems to be the main character at first, but in truth he is a guide, so the "real" moments of small emotion between him and Wallace stay in the film.  But moments where a traditional dramatic structure seems to unfold, like when Lipsky is about to argue with his girlfriend, both the film and performers realize the typical drama this scene would lead to.  Eisenberg does something remarkable with his performance here, replacing his anger with sudden disinterest, and Ponsoldt follows suit by cutting away.  It's the small moments which keep people like Wallace interested in living, not the big emotional ones, and Ponsoldt showed a nice bit of self-awareness in introducing these emotional moments before allowing them to drift away.

Eisenberg and Segel have remarkable chemistry together, both finding different ways for their characters to be scared of empathy while making peace with it.

Eisenberg and Segel have remarkable chemistry together, both finding different ways for their characters to be scared of empathy while making peace with it.

Eisenberg, though one of the greatest actors of his generation, is left with the short end of Margulies' screenplay.  There's little way to make the basic exposition of the introduction work as he plays a schoolteacher to the audience who may be unfamiliar with Wallace.  He does spectacularly in those smaller, unexpected, moments, but overall is relegated to observer.  I am still grateful for this choice, because if he matched the emotional vulnerability of Segel as Wallace The End of the Tour might have been impossible to get through.  Segel finds a perfect note to play Wallace in a mixture of intelligent bliss and painful empathy.  Much like the real Wallace, it seemed every time Segel spoke his voice might collapse in on itself, but when he finished a though a wave of satisfaction rippled through his body language.

It's the sweet satisfaction of making that connection in spite of the harsh conditions which makes The End of the Tour such a rewarding experience.  I felt on the verge of tears, yet never crying, still listening, but wishing I could interrupt Wallace and just tell him to stop focusing on the structure and simply be.  That's asking something impossible, as Wallace was such a beautiful writer when he realized his role in our social hierarchy but wanted to illuminate and connect with people outside of it.  He had to venture into the unknown parts of himself and others, never knowing which Wallace would be back to take the wheel.  The End of the Tour affords him the dignity of when he was successful in that journey, and asks us to feel along with him.

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Tail - The End of the TourThe End of the Tour (2015)

Directed by James Ponsoldt.
Screenplay written by Donald Margulies.
Starring Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel.

Posted by Andrew

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