Sunday, August 2, 2015

The End of the Tour (***1/2)

Directed by James Ponsoldt


The concept of David Lipsky's 2010 book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself always felt a little gross to me. The book consists solely of a weekend-long interview between Lipsky and legendary author David Foster Wallace toward the end of his epic book tour after the release of his brilliant, maddening, excessively long novel Infinite Jest. The interview was meant to be part of a cover story for Rolling Stone magazine, Lipsky wanted to capture the zeitgeist that was Wallace at the height of that fame, but the magazine dumped the story and this interview didn't see the light of day until after Wallace's suicide in 2008, over twelve years later. The whole thing felt like an exploitation of a tragedy, like when Riverhead Books decided to publish Kurt Cobain's agonizingly personal journals and distribute them for all the world to see. Lipsky's book has now been transformed into The End of the Tour, the latest film from indie director James Ponsoldt, and has morphed into a surprisingly poignant view of one of our most fascinating writers. The script, written by Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Donald Margulies, finds pockets of humanity and moments of tension within Lipsky's interview, drafting a view of two different kinds of writing celebrity: the moderate success story who wants to be a rock star and the rock star who wants to be anything but.

In 1996, the release of Wallace's second novel, Infinite Jest, was probably the buzziest literary moment of the decade. It arrived like a freight train, at 1,079 pages long (nearly 100 of those pages are footnotes in the back - make sure you read it with two bookmarks), and instantly made Wallace the most talked about writer of his generation. At this same moment, Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) had just released his first novel - he'd previously published a story collection - about his childhood in Manhattan, and dreamed about the kind of commercial and critical success that Wallace had achieved. Wallace's books were so odd, so funny and so filled with personal pain wrapped within complicated, lyrical prose, that the reader could not help but reflect this fascination onto the author himself. Infinite Jest was the apex of that, the super-sized version of all his neurosis and hifalutin style. Disenfranchised with his work as a writer for Rolling Stone, Lipsky convinces his editor to send him to Bloomington, Illinois to meet with Wallace for an interview. Rolling Stone hardly did any pieces on authors, but Lipsky persisted, claiming that Wallace was breaking through to youth, that he was forcing Americans, who were becoming increasingly book-phobic, to go out and buy books. His editor reluctantly gives him the job, but presses him to "find the story".

Lipsky arrives in Bloomington during a tepid snowstorm and meets Wallace (played by Jason Segel with surprising virtuosity and softness) at his home with his two excitable dogs. His home is modest, unkempt, stacks of books on the walls, cases of soda in the kitchen. He refuses to own a TV because he knows that it will take over his life if he has one. At first glance, Wallace seems friendly in that idiosyncratic kind of way that seems present in his writing. From the start, though, Wallace is weary of Lipsky's presence, his blinking tape recorder and the concept of somebody else writing a story about him and his life. Anyone familiar with Wallace's writing is aware of the exhausting level of self-awareness that Wallace possesses and his seeming need to control the image he presents through constant self-deprecation and humor. Lipsky is meeting it full-on, but feels as though this is a facade, a manufactured concept of the writer that Wallace has taken on. Wallace's insistence that this is who he really is only makes it seem more phony. As their time together persists, Lipsky sits in on one of Wallace's creative writing classes that he teaches at Illinois State University, he travels with him to Minneapolis for the last stop on his book tour, and they spend an afternoon in the Mall of America, where they discuss what Infinite Jest is really about before going to see the John Travolta/Christian Slater vehicle Broken Arrow in the movie theater.

Their trip isn't all friendly. When Lipsky becomes friendly with Betsy (Mickey Sumner), a friend and ex-girlfriend of Wallace's who comes to his reading, Wallace becomes hostile. The discretion creates a day-long rift that actually comes to Lipsky's benefit when Wallace's temper gives Lipsky some more candid talk for his interview. The tension is obviously heightened from the book, which is a pretty straight forward layout of interviews between the two writers, and it's hard to know how much of the material between the recordings is reality and what's a product of Margulies' engaging script. Either way, most of the dialogue is pulled directly from the book and Margulies' expertly transfers it from the coldness of the page and turns it into something real, with actual emotions, and crafts an arc for these two men to experience. We'll likely never know where David Foster Wallace's true personality ended and his writing persona began, but Margulies crafts something that feels incredibly honest, where Lipsky's book just felt like the jumbled thoughts of an increasingly neurotic artist. (Also, the script drops Lipsky's retroactive prose, intruding on the interviews in italics with thoughts about what his quotes from 1996 mean after his tragic death in 2008. I found that tacky at best, and was glad to see it go.)

My skepticism upon hearing a year ago that Segel was cast as Wallace a year ago was warranted, I feel. He's always been an intelligent comedic performer, who knows that there's more to being in a comedy than making people laugh. His level of sweetness in his films is something his peers like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill aspire to, but the way he does it is so effortless. But there was nothing in his past filmography that would suggest that he was capable of this performance. It's not exactly an impression, and the film does good by not asking him to make the kind of transformation expected out of most actors in a biopic. There is an essence here, though, that Segel certainly pulls off, and whatever aspect of David Foster Wallace is the true man is irrelevant, because The End of the Tour at least shows us an idea of Wallace that we're familiar with. The constant second-guessing of oneself, the need to be transparent (or at least give the appearance of transparency), works within the modest scope of Margulies script, and Segel delivers it with grace. Early in the film, Wallace claims that one of the reasons he's single is because he's "difficult to live with", and Lipsky can barely fathom how that can be true. Segel's slow burn approach throughout the film show's Wallace's steady descent toward unpleasantness at certain moments, his inability to handle certain aspects of life that come easy to most people.

This is James Ponsoldt's fourth feature, but it's his most fully realized. His emphasis on performances have often left his film's without much visual identity. In the case of his last film, The Spectacular Now, there didn't seem to be much of an identity at all. He seems intent on keeping himself in the background of the discussion. The End of the Tour is competently directed, he's no closer to putting a aesthetic stamp on his resume here than he was before, but his handling of Margulies' script is top notch. Lipsky and Wallace are basically just talking in each scene, but Ponsoldt is smart of enough to make each conversation unique, to provide the subtext of what each conversation might mean to both men at that particular time. Watching the two men sit in a car, eating candy, and discussing Die Hard is unbelievably enjoyable, but watching them in the same car discussing Lipsky's possible interviews with Wallace's parents feels like it's in a completely different location. His handling of Eisenberg (who may be giving his best performance that isn't part of the sarcastic, pedantic role that he's come to lean on with varying degrees of success throughout his career) is especially interesting. In Lipsky's book, he and Wallace act almost like peers, but Ponsoldt gives Wallace the higher pedestal here. Segel is already a significantly larger person than Eisenberg, but Ponsoldt crafts the camera to make Lipsky seem like a lilliputian.

It's hard to accept that David Foster Wallace may have been just a regular guy. In truth, he wasn't. He was a brilliant mind who has written books on mathematics (Everything and More) and the cultural significance of rap music (Signifying Rappers, with Mark Costello). He could wax poetic on close to any subject and was even an accomplished athlete. But when an author writes stuff as harrowing as his fiction, as high-strung as his nonfiction, and then ends his life in suicide, we want a juicy story. Wallace was never really able to provide that. His family life was relatively stable, his professional life was obviously a success, and despite rumors, he never really had any major addictions to dangerous drugs like heroin (in D.T. Max's 2012 biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, we learn that he had some issues with marijuana and alcohol when he was young). Wallace's depression was deep-rooted inside of him, and if The End of the Tour really creates anything, it shows how lonely it must have been to be unhappy in America in the 1990's. In a decade marked by euphoric success and middle class contentedness, it must have been very difficult to be sad, and not only that, but to create art that seemed to try and represent what it's like to be as sad as Wallace must have been. The End of the Tour is on the surface just 106 minutes of conversation, but what Margulies and Ponsoldt mold it into is a meditation on the young person's anxiety with complacency - Lipsky wants to be more successful, Wallace worries more with the more success he gets. The film's view of depression is unlike most, but it's effective. Whether it's the sole truth is unknown, but it might just be the view of David Foster Wallace we've always wanted.

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