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Film review: ‘The End of the Tour’ mines depths of human psyche

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One of the highlights of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival was director James Ponsoldt’s fourth feature film, “The End of the Tour.” Based on Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky’s 2010 book “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself” — an account of Lipsky’s five-day interview with late literary icon David Foster Wallace — the film emerges unscathed from a sea of tired, tortured-artist biopics as a groundbreaking achievement in the true-story narrative. Ponsoldt’s unrelenting dedication to characterization, a truly outstanding screenplay, and momentous performances from both Jason Segel (Wallace) and Jesse Eisenberg (Lipsky) seamlessly unite to expose the price of fame and the pitfalls of existentialism, all the while paying perfect tribute to the brilliant yet tortured author of “Infinite Jest” who so tragically took his own life in 2008.

When Lipsky arrives in the wintry Minnesota, he hardly knows what to expect from his first meeting with Wallace, but quickly discovers an “incredibly shy egomaniac” who is both impossibly kind and desperately insecure. Lipsky, a mildly successful author himself, rapidly forms a close bond with Wallace, and the two affectionately engage each other in philosophical discussions of sex, addiction, hedonism and fame. In the five days they have together, Lipsky uncovers many of Wallace’s charming quirks, but also, in pursuit of a more scandalous headline, probes much deeper, and the resulting tension reveals much about Wallace’s crippling self-doubt and paralyzing loneliness. Recorder constantly in hand, Lipsky accompanies Wallace to book signings, radio shows, tourist stops and friendly hangouts, where the two are constantly sparring with each other, eventually causing strain and challenging the two great minds to ask themselves tough questions about the paths they’ve chosen.

“The End of the Tour” finds its greatest strength in its remarkable screenplay. The natural fluidity of the dialogue masterfully incorporates all the nuances of conversation, and Lipsky and Wallace’s discussions are so genuine and easy that they seem almost entirely improvised. Writer Donald Margulies (“Dinner with Friends”)  infuses the two complex men with a richness so colorful that subtleties like Wallace’s shy humility and Lipsky’s well-intentioned persistence breathe with their own life and energy. The language is raw and powerful simply in its mundanity; it manages to emulate the distinct style of Wallace, whose “regular guyness” simplifies difficult and intricate debates. Especially when considering the reasonable difficulty of adapting from Lipsky’s book, which is essentially a series of transcribed interviews, Margulies’ grand achievements in both the success of the adaptation and in organic, realistic dialogue are exemplary.

Ponsoldt sacrifices many elements of drama in order to focus solely on characterization, though the trade-off is more than worthwhile. There is no “end game” for either Lipsky or Wallace; the film is essentially an examination of a five-day conversation about life and does not pretend to have a significant conflict or goal that propels the duo to resolution. The result is a true character piece, where Lipsky’s and Wallace’s shortcomings are just as fully realized as their more admirable attributes. Additionally, the film’s quick pace perfectly accommodates this style; scenes move rapidly so as to maximize individual development.

Of course, the excellent breakthroughs in characterization are only made viable through the work of the surprisingly exceptional Segel and Eisenberg. Segel proves, to all those who may have doubted his dramatic capabilities, that he is a force to be reckoned with. Segel effortlessly integrates bashful modesty and arrogant self-assurance — just pieces of Wallace’s endlessly complicated and often contradictory personality; Wallace’s sudden and unwarranted jealousy towards Lipsky is committed and honest, and the author’s ever-present internal battle between humility, egoism and self-doubt is as intricate and detailed as “Infinite Jest.” Eisenberg is equally impressive, if only rendered less impactful by viewers’ familiarity with him in this type-A character. While he may be a reliable and capable actor, his range has thus far proven itself to be very limited.

That being said, the two prove to be wonderfully comfortable not only in their roles but with each other. Without their palpable on-screen chemistry, even Margulies’ brilliant screenplay would collapse under the weight of an insincere delivery. The two actors capitalize on Lipsky and Wallace’s many differences; Wallace craves something greater than the fame and admiration he’s received, but Lipsky only wants exactly what Wallace already has. Their friendship, tinged with quiet jealousy and unspoken competitiveness, feels not only raw and delicate, but vaguely relatable. While it may first appear that the two characters are foils of each other, the superb performances from Segel and Eisenberg lend themselves to the profound truth: Wallace and Lipsky are two sides of the same coin.

Through the elegantly designed arguments between Wallace and Lipsky, the film is able to explore the consequences of mixing sudden fame with an existentialist worldview. Wallace, having been thrust into the spotlight, is paralyzed by the fear of becoming the very mindless, hedonistic American from which he strove to stand apart. Fame strikes him not as inconsequential or meaningless but as devastatingly lonely; he finds it nearly impossible to emotionally connect with his peers now that he has been labeled as “brilliant.” Wallace sees a world centered on “pleasure and achievement and entertainment,” where television (Wallace’s addiction) is all-consuming and his readers look to him to pierce through the white noise. He cannot come to grips with the responsibilities of being an icon and is altogether unable to reconcile his sizable ego with his sincere genuinity. The result, tragically, is a man crushed by depression, debilitated by the impossible combination of self-doubt and ambition. The presence of Lipsky serves to heighten the intensity of Wallace’s contradictory idiosyncrasies, as Lipsky is suddenly disillusioned with his own ambitions for fame and struggles with bitter jealousy over the postmodern author who is deeply unsatisfied with everything Lipsky ever thought was important.

Altogether, the difficult emotional trials facing these men are meticulously realized in every conversation they share, often in discussions of sex and relationships.  The duo rebukes the “incredibly American life” while simultaneously living it, and that is what makes “The End of the Tour” so wonderfully elegant.

Contact Shannon O’Hara at shannonnohara16 ‘at’ mittymonarch.com.