Thoughtful 'The End of the Tour' is a moving portrait

The End of the Tour | B+

"'s just gonna get better and better and it's just going to get easier and easier and more and more convenient and more and more pleasurable to sit alone, with images on a screen given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. And that's fine, in low doses. But if it's the basic main staple of your diet, you're going to die. In a very meaningful way, you're going to die."

—David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour

Let's start off by making it clear that The End of the Tour is not a film for everyone. It's not that everyone can't or won't understand it. You will. And it's not like the conversations – and let's be clear, this is a movie about conversation – are too hard to follow. They're not. But it's safe to say that the majority of American audiences, unlike, say, the French, are disinclined to go to the multiplex and plunk down 10 dollars for a flick about two nerdy intellectuals discussing media, celebrity, ego, and authenticity – even if it does star the tall guy from How I Met Your Mother.

Which is a shame, because director James Ponsoldt's extraordinary film is thought-provoking, startling realistic, and compellingly honest. Much of that comes from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies' script, which takes real-life journalist and author David Lipsky's (a confident Jesse Eisenberg) five-day, unpublished Rolling Stone interview with author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) and distills it into a subtext-rich examination of the personal and ethical traps our fame-obsessed culture lays out for talented (and not-so talented) individuals. Peeling back layers of self awareness and self doubt, the director, writer, and cast capture the inner tension that exists between who people present themselves to be and who they actually are. Like a road-bound My Dinner With Andre (the conversation moves from diners to malls to car rides to hotel elevators to living rooms), it is essentially a film about two men, who don't know each other, talking about the abstract concept of self ... and the ways stories become our method of communication. Fans of Adam Sandler and the Taken flicks can be forgiven for missing out, but the truth is, The End of the Tour has a way of taking small, intimate moments and making them feel momentous.

The 1996 encounter between Lipsky and his subject occurs before and during the end of Wallace's book tour for Infinite Jest, his epic, much celebrated novel. Lipsky's own novel has just been published (to no fanfare) and he can't help but be torn between jealousy and vicarious awe as he interviews the reclusive, seemingly ambivalent Wallace. Lipsky wants to know what it's like to be a literary sensation, but all Wallace can express is his discomfort with new-found celebrity.

"There's nothing worse than someone who goes around saying, 'I'm a writer I'm a writer I'm a writer.' I don't mind appearing in Rolling Stone. I don't want to appear in Rolling Stone as someone who wants to be in Rolling Stone," Wallace answers.

The men's relationship deepens over the course of five days, as they engage in a verbal dance of sincerity and affectation, trust and passive-aggressive wariness. Both understand that journalism (depicted with knowing accuracy) requires a certain level of exploitation and betrayal, and watching Wallace cautiously calibrate his answers to Lipsky's probing questions brings with it a surprising sense of drama. The author knows he's a walking contradiction and fears becoming a hypocrite. Even as his stories and essays ring the warning bell against the inauthentic influences and existential threats of pop culture, media myth-making, and celebrity, Wallace also half-confesses an addiction to those very things. So great is that addiction that he refuses to own a television ... but openly revels in the opportunity to sequester himself in a hotel room to watch one for hours on end.

The film sometimes detours from the men's tete-a-tetes, allowing women to invade their airless bubble of ego and ideas. Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner (daughters of Meryl Streep, and Sting, respectively) appear as old friends of Wallace, which allows us a glimpse of the man beneath the words as he seethes over Lipsky's subtle flirting.

Joan Cusack also shows up as a cluelessly cheerful Minneapolis driver. Her appearance could be argued to be condescending, but it drives home the point that Wallace, for all his literary accolades, was mostly invisible to the public at large. Today, he's probably best known for the "This Is Water" commencement speech that became a video viral sensation years after his death. Tragically, the movie fails to correct that, never giving us a taste of the author's voice. There's a scene where Wallace is about to read at a bookstore. Why not let us hear him, understand why so many find his writing exciting? It's a notable misstep.

Of course, all the buzz about the film centers on Segel's "transformative" performance. It's certainly an earnest performance that highlights Wallace's intellect, empathy, and even contradictions. He convincingly embodies a man who is not comfortable in his own choices, or his own body for that matter. Slumping his shoulders, he depicts Wallace as awkwardly trying to compensate for his height. But there's a unknowable core to the man that Segel can't seem to bring himself to fill. Perhaps it's out of respect or maybe it's the inescapable knowledge that Wallace ended up killing himself 12 years later, but Segel never seems to take any risks with his performance, never seems to give himself the authority to make a bold or counterintuitive choice. Unlike the intellectual exuberance Wallace sometimes showed during interviews, a doomed pall surrounds the character, as if the interviews might provide us with a sense of why he ended his life. In contrast, the real-life Lipsky abandoned the Rolling Stone profile because he felt he couldn't identify Wallace's story, even after spending five days living with him.

The End of the Tour is a heartfelt portrait of self-questioning genius and a thinking man's version of bromance (there's even a discussion about the virtues of Die Hard). It asks provocative questions about the nature of conversation while engaging in equally provocative conversations. It attempts to capture the essence of a man whose own contradictions were a mystery to him. It's worshipful of a writer who was both suspicious and enamored of celebrity. Wallace probably would have hated it ... but, perhaps, loved that the movie got made. As he says to Lipsky at one point in the film, "David, this is nice. This is not real."

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