Review: The End of the Tour (Ponsoldt, 2015) – SFIFF 2015


Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Sometimes you watch a movie and afterwards you get that euphoric feeling that’s partly a light swelling in your chest and partly a heightened awareness of your senses. Your words have more snap and zing to them, your expressions more zeal. The world is suddenly filled with secret meaning, emanating from the click of your shoes on pavement or the profiles of a group of strangers laughing over a meal in the restaurant across the street.

But somewhere along the line of excessive movie-watching you started becoming suspicious of that feeling. (It was around the time you stopped calling movies “movies” and started calling them “films” instead.) Not long after that you began to wonder what it was about films that you actually liked and, fearfully, whether you did actually like them at all.

And then you watch a movie like The End of the Tour–which is not so incredibly honest, not at all innovative, which is actually just a plain old story about the non-friendship between two men, and played by mainstream actors to boot–and you get that old romantic feeling again, the one you taught yourself not to trust but which is ultimately at the heart of your love for movies.

The End of the Tour is Sundance veteran James Ponsoldt‘s most successful film to date. Not financially successful, mind you (the film grossed just over $3 million in limited release), but successful in that sweeping cinematic way that I describe above. Perhaps Ponsoldt was always building toward this moment, first with Smashed, which reels with the sorrow of a married couple torn apart by alcoholism, and again in The Spectacular Now, an earnest romance about a self-destructive teen and his fraught relationships with women. Both films are refreshingly unafraid of exploring, even wallowing, in emotion, but their characterizations often veer toward the clichéd or familiar.

In this most recent film, Ponsoldt finally manages to make a movie that is nuanced while still maintaining its emotional fearlessness. Actors Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg join Ponsoldt in adapting David Lipsky‘s memoir Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which remembers Lipsky’s five-day trip with cult author David Foster Wallace. Eisenberg is a perfect fit for the neurotic, insecure Lipsky, and, while Segel might not be the first person one would think of to play the iconic writer, the comedy actor delivers a surprisingly rich, compelling, and convincing performance as Wallace.

In the story, Lipsky has persuaded his editor at Rolling Stone that he needs to write an in-depth profile on the young phenom David Foster Wallace. Reluctantly, the editor agrees, and the would-be interviewer finds himself in Wallace’s Midwestern home, affectionately crushed by the author’s two boisterous dogs. Accompanying Wallace on the end of his book tour, Lipsky strikes up an easy-going banter with the likable author–until the two have an awkward falling out.

At first blush, the movie’s premise–an hour-and-a-half of two smart guys having (mostly) intellectual conversations–doesn’t sound all that cinematic. But contained in these conversations is all the richness of any human relationship. While the jealous Lipsky jockeys for, if not power, at least recognition, the at turns welcoming, weary, and wary Wallace seems to just want an honest exchange. Lipsky alternates between desiring to befriend Wallace, hoping to show him up, and remembering that he is a journalist doing a job.

The End of the Tour screened as the Centerpiece film of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, and, in the accompanying extended Q&A, Ponsoldt called the film an “unrequited love story,” or something to that effect. The description, though intentionally reductionist, is also absolutely true. By no means a homoerotic tale, the movie is about a different kind of love or need–or, rather, Lipsky’s desire to be acknowledged and appreciated by someone whom he begrudgingly allows is a great artist. When he puts aside his envy–which, by the way, is a bravely honest envy–he suspects he’ll never be Wallace’s equal. Through their shared time, however, he hopes he has become at least more than just another anonymous fan. But in his vanity and insecurity, Lipsky may have squandered that opportunity–or perhaps he never had much of a chance in the first place.

The End of the Tour might be an old-fashioned, traditional kind of picture, but it reminds me of why I used to get excited about watching movies. I walked out of the theater that night with joy in my heart and an irrepressible smile on my face.