There are a couple of great discoveries one can make in a biopic. The first, is a historical figure that previously was just a name in a hurricane of other names of apparently important people who proves to be far more interesting than expected. The second, is an actor who seems to be backed in a corner of generic roles finally given a chance to expand and melt into a deeper character, proving themselves completely. In watching The End Of The Tour, not only did I make both, but I got the privilege of seeing what is by far the year’s most heartfelt and moving film thus far.
David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) is a journalist for Rolling Stone looking for a worthwhile story that expands beyond fluff pieces on boy bands. When he stumbles upon David Foster Wallace’s (Jason Segal) one thousand page epic ‘Infinite Jest’, a great fascination with the man grows, and David lobbies for an interview with the author. He ends up finding himself on the last leg of Wallace’s book tour, and in his subject finds a man who not only serves as an inspiration for his own writing, but a chess partner for some of the deepest and darkest conversations he’s ever had.
The End Of The Tour is essentially a film about two very intelligent and deeply scared people talking, and that play-like structure can very easily feel nauseating and pretentious in lesser hands. Fortunately, we have two fantastic performers who bare their souls here. Jason Segal has spent that majority of his career coasting on his lovably schlubby persona, but here, he uses exactly that to disarm us through a man who while deeply intelligent, is absolutely terrified by social interaction. Sure he’s kind, funny, and deeply insightful, but there is a layer of self-doubt churning through every word out of his mouth. Segal so honestly portrays this type of personality, I started to reflect on people in my own life who are similar to this character, and the way I’ve often cynically approached them to a fault, which brings me to Eisenberg, who does his richest work since ‘The Social Network’ here. Although Lipsky greatly admires Wallace, he also suspects that some of his anxiety and self doubt might be a little phony given the sheer confidence it takes to release a thousand page book, and Eisenberg juggles these conflicting emotions with his signature humor and punchy delivery. He doesn’t get to show off quite as much range as Segal, but we do get to see a great deal of gears turning as he tries to get a read on this strangely smaller than life figure.
James Ponsoldt’s direction and Donald Margulies’ screenplay work perfectly in-tandem to create a conversational and emotional atmosphere. The writing manages to never feel like the points of view of the writer being reflected through characters. The conversations are always completely organic to who these people are, and that honesty keeps the film from feeling like it’s just talking at the audience for it’s two hours. Meanwhile, a lot of directors would be tempted to fill a story like this with visual metaphors and other flourishes to make the movie as literary as it’s subject, but Ponsoldt is very keen on keeping things as rotted in humanity as possible. While there a great many scenes in the film, they are mostly focused on these two guys talking, and by not cramping the space with obnoxious choices, both actors get to breathe, perform, and resonate like crazy.
It’s difficult to review The End Of The Tour simply because what makes it so fantastic are not the major flourishes that would hold it accountable to said review. The beauty here is in just how amazing these performers are, and the sadness and complexity within what they have to say to each other. Segal in particular gives the richest portrayal of loneliness even in company that I’ve seen in a movie in quite some time, and this performance absolutely must garner him some attention come awards season. It’s a brutally honest piece of film-making that may even make it’s audience reflect on it’s own insecurities. Under the right circumstances, this film may even save a life by making somebody with similar demons feel less alone, and if that isn’t film-making worthy of the highest recommendation, nothing is.