In 1996, Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky convinced his employers to let him do an in-depth piece on writer David Foster Wallace. The venerable rock magazine rarely interviewed writers at the time, but Wallace was no mere writer: he was the sort of unique, prodigiously talented writer that inspired people to use phrases like “the voice of a generation.” Still, there were doubts about whether Wallace would be a suitably compelling subject for a long-form piece. In one of the early scenes in James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour, editor Bob Levin (Ron Livingston, Office Space) agrees to let Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg, Zombieland) accompany Wallace (Jason Segel, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) on the final leg of his book tour, but offers a warning: “There'd better be a story there.” Indeed, it's understandable that viewers checking out The End of the Tour might have a similar thought: “There'd better be a movie here.” There is, and it's a decent one.
Unlike Lipsky's original article, The End of the Tour isn't a profile of David Foster Wallace, but an examination of the complicated relationship between a journalist and his subject. The questions posed here occasionally feel like echoes of questions asked by Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous (which told another story of an eager young journalist writing a long-form piece for Rolling Stone): Can you be a celebrity's friend and still write about them honestly? Is it okay to upset people for the sake of forcing them to reveal more of themselves? Can a conversation that both parties know will be heard by the rest of the world be an honest, genuine conversation?
When we're first introduced to Lipsky, we learn that he has just published his first novel (released to precious little fanfare). He doesn't just admire Wallace, he wants to be Wallace, and that factor adds one of the most interesting nuances of the relationship between the two men. Early on, Lipsky's behavior could be described as sycophantic: he compliments Wallace at every possible opportunity, he orders the same food Wallace orders, he laughs a little too enthusiastically at every witty thing Wallace says. Later, that admiration curdles into something closer to jealousy, as Lipsky begins to ask himself why he's so much less popular than the man he's interviewing.
However, Lipsky isn't the only one dealing with an abundance of insecurities. Wallace is a little terrified about letting a Rolling Stone reporter into his life, and openly admits that he's immensely worried about what shape the piece will ultimately take. “If I had my way, I'd have you send me the piece and let me re-write all of my quotes,” he says, only half-joking. Both men seem aware of the fact that the other party is performing to at least some degree, with Wallace silently noting Lipsky's suck-up routine and Lipsky silently noting Wallace's exaggerated humility. And yet, somewhere between the lines, a real friendship starts to grow.
One of the best things about The End of the Tour is that it's incredibly good at capturing a very particular sort of “getting-to-know-you” discomfort. These two guys really do seem like they're meeting for the first time, and there's a striking lack of chemistry in their early scenes together. They struggle to keep the conversation going, they fumble through aimless small talk and they make awkward segues into new topics. This kind of thing happens all the time in real life, but The End of the Tour reminded me of how rarely movies attempt to capture it. There's a gradual build to the moment when their banter really starts to find a comfortable rhythm – and then, a different sort of tension starts to work its way into the mix.
Both lead actors are ideally cast in the roles they've been asked to play. Segel plays a genial, relaxed sadsack and a deep thinker, while Eisenberg plays a twitchy, tense figure who tends to lean on surface-level wit. Are these accurate portraits of the real men they're playing? I couldn't say, but these are certainly well-crafted and consistently compelling characters. Eisenberg's work is very much in the vein of other things he's done (he doesn't have a lot of range, but he's so good at playing smart pricks), but Segel's performance often feels revelatory: there's such deep heartache lurking beneath his warm, friendly performance, quietly but powerfully suggesting that Wallace is valiantly fighting off a tidal wave of depression. That feeling is enhanced by the fact that the film opens with a reminder that Wallace committed suicide at the age of 46. Thankfully, we aren't given a cheap pop psychology explanation for that tragedy, but the knowledge of Wallace's death hangs over the rest of the film in a prominent way.
Ponsoldt's direction certainly isn't flashy, but it's effective enough: the simple back-and-forth framing and the handheld camera give the film a fly-on-the-wall documentary vibe, which seems appropriate for this sort of thing. To his credit, he prevents the movie from feeling like a stage play, using a diverse array of outdoor locations as the guys travel back and forth. Danny Elfman's score is the sort of low-key, heavily acoustic thing the composer likes to do every now and then (for recent examples, see Milk and The Promised Land), and effectively supports the film's emotional subtext without pushing too hard.
This is a good film, but it isn't quite a great one. Despite some strong individual moments, there's not a whole lot of meat on the bone. The movie knows who these people are and depicts the ever-evolving relationship between them convincingly, but doesn't seem entirely certain of what it wants to say about them. While most of the dialogue feels real, it rarely sings in the way that the best conversation-driven films do (it's certainly no The Sunset Limited). Finally, all of the film's supporting characters (played by recognizable faces like Livingston, Mamie Gummer and Joan Cusack) feel more like props than characters; people thrown into the mix for the sake of preventing the film from being an honest-to-goodness two-hander. Still, the strength of the two lead performances goes a long way. I enjoyed my time with the two Davids, but the film's biggest achievement is that it makes you want to go read a book.
The End of the Tour
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Year: 2015