|Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg in The End of the Tour.|
It's only the end of August and it's already been a terrific year for movies. They've arrived from all corners of the globe and each with very distinct sensibilities that set them apart from the demands of the marketplace towards being generic. Besides the quirky enchantment of Paddington, there was Olivier Assayas' sumptuously satisfying Clouds of Sils Maria, the sublime sweet sadness of the Brian Wilson bio pic Love & Mercy, Carlos Marques-Marcet's erotically charged 10,000 km, Alex Gibney's fearless scrutiny in Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and his nuanced consideration of Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, the conventions of the western being freshly reexamined in Slow West, and the new rendering of an old theme in Ex Machina. There was the resurrection of director David Gordon Green (George Washington) returning from the wilderness of mediocrity (Pineapple Express) with Manglehorn where Al Pacino equals the bold work he did last year in the largely ignored The Humbling (which was the movie that Birdman pretended to be). If someone was trying to pose the argument that cinema was dead, I would point to these pictures as signs that the art form is still alive and breathing quite nicely. Now James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) caps off the summer with the extraordinary The End of the Tour, a perceptive comic masterpiece that cuts to the quick of timely questions about celebrity and artistic authenticity and the movie does it with an intelligent wit that is as probing as it is poignant.
The movie is based on journalist and author David Lipsky's best-selling memoir, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (2010), which chronicled his time spent working on a profile for Rolling Stone about author David Foster Wallace whose 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, had just hit the cultural stratosphere with some of the same impact on a generation that Hemingway and Salinger had earlier, and maybe Joseph Heller (with Catch-22 especially) did decades later. Lipsky's book, which reads like a philosophy course turned into an appealingly droll two-hander, unfolds like a free-associative cultural discourse. It's being held though between two gifted scribes on a quest for some idea of what an essential self might be – only it's a sojourn taking place in a quickly evolving solipsistic culture. While they both jibe on about film, literature, pop music, film and canine culture, their own shared desire for authenticity runs up against the limitations of neurosis and insecurity. Lipsky is an aspiring young writer who wishes to possess the genius of Wallace for himself by both lionizing him and knocking him off his perceived pedestal. The fact that Lipsky's doing a magazine profile puts him in charge of the conversation. But Wallace proves to be an elusive target because his talent doesn't grow out of a need to pump up his own self-esteem, or reflect some secret fetish to build for himself a fan club. What Lipsky doesn't see, but the reader does, is that Wallace's perceptions into the pleasure principle of popular culture comes out of his resilience, as much as it does the growing isolation he feels in the wintry landscape of Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, where he lives alone with his two dogs and teaches at the state university. That world becomes both his sanctuary and a cocoon. (Wallace would commit suicide in 2008.)
|David Foster Wallace. (Photo: Steve Liss/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)|
Critic Phil Dyess-Nugent last year wrote that "Eisenberg’s characters have largely continued to be clumsily innocent about romantic and sexual relationships, while being wised up about everything else." That's certainly quite true in his earlier work, but his David Lipsky has lost the clumsiness that masked his deeper sense of inadequacy. Eisenberg's Lipsky covets Wallace's fame, but he also feels guilty about his envy which he feels taints his authentic love of Wallace's work. It's a triumphant performance that illuminates the competitive tics in male bonding. Those tics also create their own battlefield – as they so often do in heterosexual relationships – in the world of women. (Anna Chlumsky, as Lipsky's girlfriend, is on the margins of the film, but their battles over the phone map out a troubled terrain in their relationship that has more to do with his unresolved feelings towards Wallace than they do towards her.) Although the film is centered on the two men, Mickey Sumner as Becky, a good friend of Wallace's from college, and Mamie Gummer as Julie, a literary agent who became Wallace's friend, flesh out their supporting character roles so they don't take a backseat to the guys.
You don't have to read Infinite Jest to get the gist of The End of the Tour. I tried valiantly to make my way through the novel and although it is clearly the work of a major talent, I felt like I was entering a labyrinth with a No Exit sign. (Maybe like Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, I need to give it my full attention when I retire.)
But I've enjoyed some of Wallace's essays – especially his 1997 collection titled A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again – where he writes on American irony, the impact of television (his true addiction and obsession) and David Lynch. Wallace suffered from the kind of depression that only prodigies struggle with because they are constantly trying to sort out whether they are truly the people everyone says they are – including those who love them most. Within that conundrum, however, also lies the battle they continue to wage with themselves as to whether they can even live up to the billing. Is my work real, or is it merely the extension of what everybody expects and thinks of me? Those who don't carry the high expectations of others have a freedom to fail that geniuses never do. James Ponsoldt has pulled off a miracle by making a funny movie about a quest for self that has no bottom to it. Which is why The End of the Tour turns out to be an existential comedy with teeth.
– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.