The sharp ascension of director James Ponsoldt has been exhilarating to watch. From his largely unknown debut Off The Black, to the wonderfully acted but only decent alcoholic tale Smashed, to the excellent, critically revered teen drama The Spectacular Now, Ponsoldt has made leaps and bounds with each consecutive project. Though his newest work, The End of the Tour, won’t exactly catapult him into mainstream territory (it is perhaps his least accessible despite its very recognizable cast), it represents yet another step upward for the filmmaker. His most mature, most effective and most human film yet, Tour is a deeply soul-searching, very talky indie that mines an astounding amount of honesty from its two main characters.
Adapted from writer David Lipsky’s nonfiction book “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself”, the movie takes us through a five-day period in which Lipsky found himself interviewing famed, now-deceased “Infinite Jest” author David Foster Wallace for Rolling Stone Magazine back in 1996. Played by Jessie Eisenberg in full Jessie Eisenberg mode, Lipsky follows Wallace (played by Jason Segel in fully un-Jason Segel mode) around on the last leg of his book tour, not-so-subtly searching for the secrets to his genius and fame. Yet Wallace, being the smart guy he undoubtedly is, almost immediately picks up on Lipsky’s desire and assures him, he’s just a normal guy who just so happened to write an instantly-beloved, one-thousand page novel. Lipsky clearly doesn’t buy it, but the bigger question is, does Wallace even believe he’s just a normal guy?
The End of the Tour spoke to me. And spoke to me. And spoke to me.
It did a lot of speaking, almost exclusively so. Really more of a chain of conversations which are simultaneously intellectual and anti-intellectual, Lipsky and Wallace really don’t speak to each other as much as they bounce their own self-doubts and insecurities off of one another. They’ve both been gifted with talent and intelligence, though Wallace with national recognition as well (an inequality that Lipsky oh-so-unsubtly grapples with). Ironically, both writers find themselves openly struggling with a lack of understanding as to what intelligence really is, or whether it’s really worth it to have it.
Ponsoldt and writer Donald Margulies aren’t afraid to dive down into the perplexing, unfathomably esoteric minds of both characters as they gradually converse their way deeper and deeper, stripping away until their egos lay bare. Eventually, their internal struggles with themselves blur into a psychological struggle between the two of them, ultimately resulting in hurt feelings that are almost comically petty for such obviously brainy men. But that’s what the movie is ultimately about: the inexplicable ties between intelligence and ego, an how mental strength can carry with it severe emotional fragility.
Both actors do a fantastic job of bringing to life that tension between immense brainpower and near-crippling sensitivity. Of course, who better to play Lipsky’s egotistical nebbish than Mark Zuckerberg himself, in his best performance since that glorious The Social Network role. Eisenberg plays a much less conniving, yet no less manipulative character here, the main difference being that unlike Zuckerberg, Lipsky is generally a good guy, at the very least well-intentioned.
Same goes for Segel’s portrayal of Wallace in what is the surely one of the greatest demonstrations of acting so far this year, if only because nobody has ever seen Segel disappear so completely into a character, not to mention in his first dramatic role (which isn’t to say there aren’t perfectly executed moments of humor from him, because if you’ve got Segel you might as well get the full deal out of him). He’s absolutely astonishing, not simply putting on a certain set of mannerisms but fully owning each line of dialogue as though it came directly from his own soul. The power of his performance here is particularly pronounced when put beside Eisenberg, who plays the same kind of role he always plays. This movie does for Segel precisely what Lost in Translation did for Bill Murray, what Nebraska did for Will Forte, what The Skeleton Twins did for Bill Hader and what Foxcatcher did for Steve Carrell.
Both Lipsky and Wallace are flawed, though at the start Lipsky refuses to see Wallace as such, and refuses to reveal his own flaws to someone he sees as a pinnacle of the writing form. Over time, as their conversations continue to get further and further towards the core of thier insecurities, their bad sides gradually blossom in a completely natural way which gives both characters a stinging realism that only the best-written films can hope to achieve. The film perfectly simulates the experience of two people meeting for the first time, from naive first impressions where all one can do is assume the best about the other person, to the slow, inevitable and perhaps ambivalent realization that, once again, nobody is or can ever be perfect. But this is a movie about accepting that flaws don’t necessarily make you a bad person. In fact, if you can get the better of them, they can sometimes make you a better one.
It’s worth noting that the production design is rather bland, not visually capitalizing on the 1996 setting nearly enough to make you believe that you’re in that particular time and place. The cinematography is merely serviceable; instead of complementing the lively conversations that take place, the camerawork stays out of the way as much as possible. There’s something to be said about going for visual simplicity rather than attempting to force spectacle into such an intentionally non-spectacular story, but part of me wishes there was at least some aesthetic inventiveness involved to in some way illuminate the endless imagination inside the writers’ minds. The soundtrack, on the other hand, did a fantastic job of just that, adding a ton of texture to the world without being obtrusive.
The End of the Tour is a simple ‘the grass is always greener’ story, with both leads learning unexpected truths about themselves from each other, but told with uncommon depth and honesty. Scripts that are light on actions but heavy on dialogue, especially of the intellectual brand, is incredibly hard to pull off without becoming pretentious. But like the classic rambling sentimentalism of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries or the more recent conversation-confessionals of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, Ponsoldt and Margulies manages to make scenes of two characters talking to each other as riveting and suspenseful as any of this summer’s biggest blockbusters. It is not just Ponsoldt’s best and most sophisticated film to date; it’s also one of the year’s best, end of story.
Score: 4.5 out of 5