Friday, September 4, 2015

Movie Review: The End of the Tour

The End of the Tour
Directed by: James Ponsoldt.
Written by: Donald Margulies based on the book by David Lipsky.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg (David Lipsky), Jason Segel (David Foster Wallace), Joan Cusack (Patty), Mickey Sumner (Betsy), Mamie Gummer (Julie), Anna Chlumsky (Sarah), Ron Livingston (David Lipsky's Editor).

The End of the Tour has been met with controversy, as the family and many friends of the late David Foster Wallace object the very existence of a movie portraying him – saying that it would be the last thing he would want. To be fair, the portrait painted of the author in the movie kind argues for them – I find it hard to believe that the character of David Foster Wallace in the movie would want to a movie made about him, with someone else playing him, as he is very conscience of how he is viewed, and tells the interviewer there to write a profile on him that is wary – knowing full well that the writer can spin things however he wants, and make Wallace look however he wants him to look, and Wallace is nervous about coming across as an asshole in a piece he has no control over. It’s rare to see a movie that actually argues against its own existence, but The End of the Tour is one of those movies. What makes it interesting however is not so much the Wallace character, but the David Lipsky character – the Rolling Stone reporter played by Jessie Eisenberg who comes to interview Wallace. In his review of the film, Matt Zoller Seitz compares their relationship to the one at the heart of Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984) – with the less talented person extremely jealous of the more talented one, and that makes sense. Throughout the movie, it’s made clear, again and again, that Lipsky doesn’t really understand Wallace – and is also seething with jealously at the man who has everything that Lipsky wants, and seemingly wants to reject it. Jason Segel has garnered most of the praise for his portrayal of Wallace in the film – and it is a good performance, even if I never really believed that the character he was playing was capable of writing a book like Infinite Jest (a novel I am currently reading). But it is Eisenberg who is the real star – playing another of his series of assholes who don’t realize that they’re assholes.

The movie opens with Lipsky at a reading of his novel – The Art Fair – which is sparsely attended. His novel isn’t going to be a bestseller, and he’s working at Rolling Stone to make ends meet, when he reads a review of Infinite Jest, saying that the year’s book prizes have been settled – as the novel is the type of once in a generation novel that could not be topped (that turned out not to be true – as the book didn’t win all those awards – although it’s critical reputation remains laudatory). Lipsky’s girlfriend suggests that if the book really is that good, than perhaps he should read it. Cut to him a few hundred pages in the books, muttering “Shit”. It really is that good. Lipsky ends up convincing his editor to allow him to follow Wallace on the last stop on his book tour to write a feature interview with him. He travels to Wallace’s small, Illinois hometown, and then onto Minneapolis, doing an interview with him. What he finds is a normal, soft spoken guy – who is full of opinions and thoughts and insights, but wary of all the praise he has received. He wants to keep his normal life – which is something Lipsky quite simply finds unnatural. Does he not realize that he’s a genius, and can do anything he wants? Why does he stay in his snowbound, small city, teaching at the small college near his home? Lipsky’s resentment of Wallace grows throughout the movie – until, inevitably, it leads to arguments.

The film was directed by James Ponsoldt, from a screenplay by Donald Marglies, based on the book Lipsky wrote years after the interview (and after Wallace’s eventual suicide). It’s not a bad movie, but it is a rather bland one in the Sundance kind of way. The film strains too hard to try and search for clues to Wallace’s suicide, more than a decade later. Segel, an unlikely choice to play Wallace, does a fairly good job with his performance – toning down his usual comic persona, for something more thoughtful and soft spoken. Eisenberg dives headlong in his, unworried about making his character likable or sympathetic – which he is neither. He is a little more than a vulture, invading Wallace’s space and taking advantage of him – doing things that probably cross the line of what a journalist should do, all the while insisting on competing with Wallace in a competition that he cannot possibly win, and which Wallace has no interest in competing in.

So, should The End of the Tour have even been made? I’m not entirely sure. On one hand, like all biopics it cannot possibly get the complete portrait of the man at its core – and I think the film realizes this.  And to a certain extent, it leaves Wallace more than a little bit of an enigma, as Lipsky is clearly too self-involved, to see anyone else, including Wallace, clearly. So, as a portrait of Wallace, I don’t think the movie really does any harm to his reputation or his appearance. As a portrait of Eisenberg’s reporter, it is far better. It’s not a bad movie per se – but I’m still not sure it should have been made.

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