Saturday, August 29, 2015

Genius: James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour

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)

James Ponsoldt turns Donald Margulies's script - the kind of faithful adaptation that resists the desire to be slavish - into a Quixotic comedy of words. He also gives the picture a breezy ebullience as if he were reconceiving My Dinner with Andre as a road movie. Unlike the similarly themed Amadeus, which suffocated in its own high-mindedness, The End of the Tour erases the divide between high and low culture so that pop tarts and Falcon Crest can be discussed and consumed as copiously and without judgment as talk of Jonathan Franzen. As he did with Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now, Ponsoldt lets his actors set the rhythms of the film. Jesse Eisenberg is practically a genius at conveying characters with a steely intelligence who seem to burst out verbally from their impacted body armour. His intense concentration on his tape machine, with his stern attention to the on/off record buttons, reflect his tight grip on his acquired role as inquisitor. In pictures like The Squid and the Whale and The Social Network, Eisenberg went to great lengths to create precociously verbose comic characters whose motor mouths, with lips always flapping, seemed detached from the rigidity of their bodies. (Last year, in Kelly Reichardt's unheralded Night Moves, Eisenberg, playing an eco-terrorist, went even further into that rigidity. Out of that stillness, he gave a quietly intense performance – practically a work of pantomime – that brought out the full horror and tragedy lurking within a true believer.)

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.      

Jason Segel, as David Foster Wallace, not only stands in sharp contrast to Eisenberg's tightly wound Lipsky; he also gives a hugely empathetic performance. Segel's Wallace has a large genial frame (topped with a hippie bandanna) but he moves with such a casual reticence that he's as carefree as his two lumbering dogs. Part of the film's humour and pathos comes from their contrasting body language that is as memorable as Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight as unlikely friends walking across a bridge in Midnight Cowboy. Watching Segel's Wallace spar with Lipsky, you can tell he enjoys having his newly acquired reputation tested, but he's equally guarded about the boundaries that surround his personal life (especially any information that could make him out to be a stereotype). Whether he's showing amusement, curiousity, or anger (as when he picks up on Lipsky flirting with Becky), Segel lets you feel Foster's need for authenticity in his life as well as his work. Segel's Wallace is an artist always questioning the responses he invokes in his fans. But unlike Kurt Cobain, he's less tormented about it. Wallace doesn't write down to his readers; he wants his work to possibly lift someone out of their isolation. Unlike post-modern critics who drain the sensuality out of the genres they try to untangle, Wallace delves passionately inside that entanglement as if by doing so he might find his way to the core of who he really is and why so many thought him a genius. The depths of empathy that Segel imparts to his portrait of David Foster Wallace lingers afterwards with a wistful sweetness.

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 ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial 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.  

1 comment:

  1. Anticipating this film, I resolved in July that this would be my summer of Infinite Jest. I wonder if it will still be playing when my plodding ends. You read and you see the great gift, but "man" it is thick. Perhaps it is a winter read after all....