The End of the Tour is one of the best movies I've seen this year. Of course, some film-goers will disagree. Loudly. Call it the Boyhood effect. Where some enjoy a rich, engaging study of the human experience, others complain that there's no story – just talking and talking and talking.
Indeed, the film is a series of conversations between two people over the course of five days. Sometimes painful, often funny conversations. There's no romance, mystery or action – just relatable talk. Done right, that's all you need, and The End of the Tour does it right.
In 1996 Rolling Stone sent writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) on a five-day interview with David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel, in peak form), author of the highly acclaimed novel, Infinite Jest. Imagine spending five days with a stranger whose job is to take your words and create a portrait of you in print. Wallace was uneasy about the notion.
The Wallace feature wasn't published. In an interview with Lipsky 12 years later, Rolling Stone stated "as is often the case in the magazine business, a series of events took place – a rock star's untimely death, a heated political season – and the profile never saw publication." Imagine spending five days being interviewed only to learn the piece would not be printed.
In 2008 David Foster Wallace killed himself. Lipsky took all those tapes and wrote the 2010 memoir on which the film is based, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace. Wallace's family has disavowed the film.
Now that you know the background, I suggest you forget it and experience the film as if it was a work of fiction. There's a lot of interesting things going on here.
Lipsky, still on new-hire probation at Rolling Stone, joins Wallace for the last part of his book tour. We travel with them from Bloomington, Ill. to Minneapolis. Later there's a trip to the Mall of America, and even a viewing of John Travolta's cheesy action blockbuster Broken Arrow.
Lipsky tries to get inside Wallace's head, but Wallace appears to be using all the available space to question himself. There are rumors he used heroin and Lipsky's editor wants that addressed. The young reporter anguishes over the prospect of talking to his easily-spooked subject about such a personal topic. That doesn't stop him from taking a gander inside Wallace's medicine cabinet, though.
Jesse Eisenberg shows the weaselly side of Lipsky, but deftly rounds the man's character into something less hissable. Jason Segel, meanwhile, does a wonderful job presenting Wallace as a complex soul who remains sympathetic even when his doubts and obsessions become maddening.
At times both men appear lost; like boys unsure of their roles, they look to clichés, culture, and even each other to try to determine what they should do next. Despite their shaky posture, however, their testosterone ensures suspicion and squabbling over women.
Watch Lipsky the interviewer – insinuating himself, pushing, anguishing over his bad behavior just before engaging in more of it. Behold Wallace the artist – questioning, suffering, holding court while dressed like a serf, hating the interview experience to which he agreed. Mark Jenkins of NPR says The End of the Tour is "only for Wallace buffs and one other, even smaller group: journalists who have interviewed a reasonably famous cultural personage."
I like that quote, but I couldn't disagree with it more. Trying to define yourself and find your place in the tribe – who hasn't been in a similar position? Even the self-assured aren't always certain of their social footing ... I hope.
There is a point in the film where the conversation goes sour; a deliberate move, I think, by director James Ponsoldt and screenplay writer Donald Margulies. Part of experiencing a condensed version of the marathon interview between two strangers is acknowledging that the talk, the pleasantries, the faux friendship, will eventually reach a point where it becomes just too much. The End of the Tour takes us there, then rounds the bend and carries us back into the light again. Yes, the movie is almost all talk, but the collected conversation is a substantive journey.
Opens: Friday, Keystone Art