Sunday, September 6, 2015

'The End of the Tour' review

James Ponsoldt only has four full-length credits to his name, but so far, he has made a tremendous impact on the film world. Off the Black and Smashed generated some buzz, but The Spectacular Now really took him to the next level. Praised by critics and fans almost universally, the teen alcoholism drama is one of the best high school movies in recent years, perfectly balancing complex characters and weighty themes. For his follow-up, Ponsoldt has tackled another mature, sophisticated story, with real emotion and poignancy. The End of the Tour, the story of the relationship between author David Foster Wallace and Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky, is one of the very best films of the year, a grounded, human piece of cinema that firmly establishes Ponsoldt as one of the best character directors on the planet. Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel are magnificent, the atmosphere and music is calm and soothing, and the script is intuitive and smart, ultimately making The End of the Tour a film that's hard to forget.

In 2008, David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) sits on his couch, typing away at another story. The phone rings. He picks up. "I'm not sure if you've heard this yet, but they're reporting that David Foster Wallace has died of a suicide," says the friend on the other line. Lipsky is in disbelief. He rushes to his laptop, only to confirm what he was just told. He starts moving boxes, rearranging things in his room, and searching for something. A tape recorder. He finds it. Rewinds it. And hits play.

With this set-up, we're launched into The End of the Tour, the true story of the interview between Lipsky and the late Foster Wallace (played brilliantly by Jason Segel). After reading a review praising Wallace's novel Infinite Jest as a masterpiece and a lock for nearly every book award possible, Lipsky picks up the 1,000 page opus and is immediately enthralled. He begs his editor to allow him to write a story on the conclusion of Wallace's Infinite Jest tour, and the editor reluctantly agrees. Lipsky packs his bags and travels to Wallace's home in Illinois. Over the next five days, the unlikely pair embarks on a journey of conversation and discovery, covering everything from television culture to fame to depression. Lipsky and Wallace become true friends, and a bond is formed that will impact both of them in surprising ways.

Something about Ponsoldt's films just hits me in the right spot. When I first saw The Spectacular Now, I was completely swept up by it and everything that Ponsoldt did made me more invested in the characters and story. Because of how much I loved that film, my expectations for The End of the Tour were sky-high. They were undoubtedly met, and maybe even surpassed. What works about Ponsoldt's films is not only the themes and directorial style, but the attention to detail and the way that everything feels so complete. His films are laser-focused, with as little filler as possible. This one is no different. From frame one, the focus is on Lipsky and Wallace- their relationships, their perspectives and the way that they change each other. The characters change as the story evolves, and it allows for a genuine feeling of emotion as the film progresses, especially as it nears its sad, but undoubtedly perfect conclusion.

It also helps that the film is structured with simplicity, allowing the audience to really get deep inside the heads of the characters and feel a close relationship with them. For some audiences, this might prove to be boring. Most of The End of the Tour takes place in humble Midwestern houses, cars, libraries, bookstores and the like. But to call that "boring" or "uninteresting" would be to underestimate what makes this film special. There's not much flash because that's not the point- the goal of The End of the Tour is to make you listen. Truly, seriously listen. Examine what the characters are saying and why they're saying it. Get into the head of Lipsky and Foster Wallace. The true depth of this literary epic, along with the spectacular structure and quiet, reserved feel makes The End of the Tour a movie worth seeking out and treasuring for a long time.

Segel and Eisenberg are the stars here, and even though we get small, but memorable performances from Joan Cusack, Mamie Gummer and Ron Livingston, this film belongs to its two main stars. Eisenberg is always an interesting actor in my view, because he manages to give a similar performance in nearly every film, but always do such a good job. It's a little different this time around. With David Lipsky, Eisenberg is channeling less of that whipsmart Zombieland/Now You See Me tone, and definitely less of the smartass tech mogul thing that he did with The Social Network. Here, he's much more subdued. He still has certain nervous elements to him, but with The End of the Tour, there's something completely different in the air. Eisenberg struggles to break out of the Eisenberg shell because he has such a distinct voice and look, but this film showed a new side to him that was quite impressive.

Segel gives the much more showy performance, and depending on how the fall awards season plays out, I can see him getting an Oscar nomination. I'm not overly familiar with how Foster Wallace talked and acted in real life, but while watching the film, I completely forgot that I was watching Jason Segel. It's an excellent character performance and Segel brings a ton of depth to the film. Foster Wallace is obviously an iconic writer, but Segel humanizes him with ease. He delivers the dialogue with crisp skill and it's just absolutely wonderful to watch these two characters talk.

That brings me to my next point- the script by Donald Margulies is truly masterful. He had a lot of good material to work with thanks to Lipsky's interview and the accompanying novel, but it's still incredibly impressive. The way that Margulies synthesized the information to work to the heart of the story is admirable, and what we get is an examination of fame, television culture and modern day America, but most importantly, the relationship between these two men and how it meant something to both of them and changed their lives (especially Lipsky's). While listening to and watching the film, you sit there and nod your head in agreement, which I think is the sign of something that really hits the nail on the head.

The basis for this film was already pretty strong thanks to the performances and the script and yet, it gets even better. Ponsoldt's direction is magnificent, perfectly balancing the spectacular cinematography of Jakob Ihre and the performances. Ponsoldt's camera gets close into the faces of the characters, bringing out their true emotions as they talk and dissect their lives. The cinematography contrasts that with the sort of beautiful emptiness that only the midwest can provide, and an iciness that works on every level. And finally, the music by Danny Elfman is terrifically devastating, providing a steady pulse and highlighting the emotion of the film's best moments.

The End of the Tour is not your typical biopic and I'm thankful for that. It's a quiet film and one that is not at all concerned with flair or show-off filmmaking. Instead, this film demands to be felt and it demands to be examined. There's so much here to dissect, making it one of the most intelligent films of the year. But most importantly, it's one of the best on a basic character and human level. In the relationship between Foster Wallace and Lipsky, Ponsoldt and Margulies have found a universal bond, a unifying emptiness, an existential longing that these characters feel too. That humanity, that emotional feeling, that skill and precision- that's the true achievement of this masterpiece.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A+                                            (10/10)

Image Credits: Rolling Stone, EW, Roger Ebert, Variety, A24

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