A Review of James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour: When Characters and Conversation are Enough

The End of the Tour Review Jason Segel Jesse Eisenberg

Film: The End of the Tour
Director: James Ponsoldt
Primary Cast: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Anna Chlumsky
US Release Date: 31 July 2015

The End of the Tour
The End of the Tour opens with a shot of writer David Lipsky (Eisenberg) sitting alone at his computer. The phone rings, and a faceless voice tells him that David Foster Wallace (Segel) has been reported dead. The acclaimed author killed himself. The year is 2008.

The rest of the film (with the exception of one scene at the end) is set in 1996. Lipsky has recently published a lackluster novel (The Art Fair) and has just been hired to write for Rolling Stone. Meanwhile, a novel called Infinite Jest is taking the literature world by storm, and both Lipsky and his girlfriend Sarah (Chlumsky) are totally enthralled by it.

After convincing his boss to let him interview Wallace for Rolling Stone (which hasn’t published an interview with an author in 20 years), Lipsky travels to Wallace’s noticeably ordinary home in snowy Bloomington, IL.

Over the next 5 days, Lipsky follows Wallace everywhere he goes; he accompanies him on the final trip of his book tour, watches Broken Arrow with him at The Mall of America, and he even spends a few nights in his house. During that time, Lipsky conducts an extended interview with Wallace. Though Wallace “agreed to the interview”—as Lipsky so often reminds him—he is often noticeably uncomfortable with Lipsky’s questions, with the idea of being written about in Rolling Stone, and with his newfound literary fame. At the same time, Lipsky struggles both with feelings of jealously for Wallace’s success and with the obligations of his profession.
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My Review 
Directed by James Ponsoldt, The End of the Tour is an intimate and poignant film that defies certain biopic conventions in the name of telling a tale that is much more concerned with conversation, characters, and emotions than it is with information or events. What The End of the Tour lacks in pure plot, it more than makes up for in sheer impact. In many ways, Ponsoldt’s film is quiet and unassuming, but it is also haunting—it hits hard, and it cuts to the bone. It seems to vanish before you even as you reach out to contain it. Like Wallace, there is something about The End of the Tour that remains inaccessible even as it works its way under your skin. 

I don’t actually know enough about Wallace to judge whether or not The End of the Tour presents him in an accurate light. That said, I don’t really care. The film isn’t really about Wallace at the end of the day, and it’s a pretty good way to spend two hours regardless of how faithfully it represents Wallace and Lipsky’s lived experiences.

One of the best things about The End of the Tour is the fact that its script (which was written by Donald Margulies) isn’t weighed down with axioms and quotable lines (I can’t remember more than a sentence or two verbatim). The exchanges between Lipsky and Wallace feel like a genuine conversation, which as the film demonstrates, can be a powerful thing. The film’s interactions may not give viewers some obvious insight into the nature of art or the workings of the universe, but they feel natural, and the film is much better for it. Lipsky and Wallace don’t spell everything out, and they aren’t always articulate, but that doesn’t make their conversation less engrossing. The End of the Tour is a film which understands that conversation is as much about what isn’t said as it is about what is said and that it is as much about what is lost in translation as it is about what is understood. Though there is a certain degree of tension between them—and though Lipsky’s job prevents him from interacting with Wallace as honestly as he might like—the two writers at the center of the film still make a connection. That connection might be frayed by misunderstandings and damaged by egos, but that doesn’t eliminate its importance.

Though nearly all of The End of the Tour is set in 1996, it opens with a scene that tells viewers that Wallace died by suicide in 2008. This scene may seem simple, but it actually accomplishes a great deal. In addition to informing the film’s audience, the scene also changes the tone of the entire film. A quiet sense of tragedy colors every scene in which Wallace appears, which lends added emotional depth to the film. At the same time, the scene also prevents the filmmakers from feeling compelled to pump Lipsky’s interview with Wallace full of overly obvious instances of foreshadowing, which surely would have damaged the whole endeavor. 

Another remarkable thing about The End of the Tour is that it isn’t formatted like a typical “biopic.” Margulies’s screenplay doesn’t make space for any flashbacks or montages showing Wallace’s early life; it doesn’t say where he was born or use subtitles to tell viewers about everything that he did in the years after Lipsky’s interview either. The film also doesn’t make the mistake of using some extended coda to show viewers how Lipsky’s article on Wallace was received by Rolling Stone (they never ran it). The End of the Tour is about two people and their interactions over the course of 5 days. It’s about writing, and journalism, and how we try (and fail) to know people. The End of the Tour is a compelling character study, and viewers don’t need to know a single thing about Wallace or Lipsky for that to be true. At the same time, Ponsoldt’s film doesn’t try to give viewers a complete picture of Wallace; it couldn’t if it wanted to, and what it focuses on instead is far more meaningful.

Ordinary conversation has the potential to be a much more powerful thing than it is often given credit for. At the same time, conversation doesn’t need to be terribly elegant or articulate to bring people together either. Writing and talking (or being interviewed) are two entirely different things for Wallace (the former, he only does when he’s alone). Wallace isn’t composing a novel when he answers Lipsky’s questions. He’s just talking. But—as Segel’s performance makes clear—”just talking” is a pretty complicated thing.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about The End of the Tour is the quality of Segel’s performance. He’s never been on my radar as an actor capable of giving a nuanced and sensitive dramatic performance, but that is precisely what he does in this film. One moment, Wallace appears comfortable with Lipsky, and the next he is so self-aware and evasive, that he almost seems to be in pain. As Wallace, Segel is funny, smart, embarrassed, distrustful, uncomfortable, sincere, anxious, and so much else, and he is all of that without ever coming across as over the top.

Eisenberg also does decent work in the film, but he is (somewhat appropriately) overshadowed by Segel. However, while I am a fan of Eisenberg, there were some moments in the film, where it seemed that I had seen his performance before. Hopefully, he branches out a bit more in the future.

It’s not exactly easy to make a film that consists primarily of a single extended conversation and just two well-developed characters interesting, but The End of the Tour is such a film. It has its problems, and some will surely lament the fact that it doesn’t have much of a plot or narrative structure, but they’ll surely miss the point—and the power—of the film if they do.
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Until Next Time 
I’ve never actually read any of Wallace’s work. I did buy a copy of Infinite Jest the summer before I left for college (where I primarily studied literature, of all things), but I have never found the time to crack it open (to be fair, it’s a rather intimidating text). I also watched a video of a 2005 commencement speech Wallace gave a few years ago, and I remember hearing his name at the edge of others’ conversations throughout college, but that’s about it. Though I didn’t actually learn that much about Wallace (or his work) by watching The End of The Tour, I am sure that I’ll have the film in my head if I ever do read him. Whether this is a good thing or not remains to be seen.

That’s all for now. Thanks so much for reading. If you’ve seen The End of the Tour, I’d love to hear what you think of it. To let me know, just leave a comment below or connect with this blog on Twitter.

PS: I recently watched Let the Right One In for the first time, and I really enjoyed it. I probably won’t write about it here any time soon (I’ve been unfortunately busy lately), but it’s worth watching if you have the time (and it’s on Netflix!).

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