The End of the Tour

(2015) *** 1/2 R
106 min. A24 Films. Director: James Ponsoldt. Cast: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack, Ron Livingston, Mickey Sumner.

/content/films/4823/1.jpgA hulking, hunching man, dressed down and sporting a bandana, his breakfast of champions being half a Pop Tart and an American Spirit, may not cut the most obvious figure of the Great American Novelist. And yet, for many, David Foster Wallace—the highly praised author of 1,000-plus-page tome Infinite Jest—was exactly that. To those acquainted with him to various degrees, he was more. To those who knew him intimately, he was very much more. And of course to Wallace himself, he was infinitely more than anyone else could ever know. These mysteries of personality and the hall of mirrors of celebrity culture form the nebulous parameters of The End of the Tour, a film inspired by five days in the life of Wallace and journalistic profiler David Lipsky.

In a revelatory change-of-pace performance redolent of repressed anger and nagging disappointments, actor-screenwriter Jason Segel plays the 34-year-old at the tail end of his 1996 book tour for Infinite Jest. As Wallace contends with a “constant low-level state of anxiety” about his present and future, 30-year-old Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), himself a novelist currently on assignment from Rolling Stone, shadows the literary star and plies him for anything he will reveal (intentionally or inadvertently). The magazine never published Lipsky’s profile, but it became the kernel of his memoir Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, ingeniously adapted here by Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Donald Margulies (Dinner with Friends).

What emerges in the screenplay, sensitive direction by James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now), and leading performances essentially amounts to a fascinating and moving two-hander powered by dialogues of constantly fluctuating intimacy. Significant “others” pass through (including Anna Chlumsky as Lipsky’s girlfriend, Ron Livingston as his editor, Mickey Sumner as a friend of Wallace, and Joan Cusack, typically fine as Wallace’s temporary handler), but the film’s depth and breadth can be found when the two Davids are alone together—and, briefly but tellingly, alone with themselves—discussing everything from the sacred (the art of writing) to the profane (masturbation and getting laid)...though Wallace might well have cracked that I have those examples the wrong way around.

Unavoidably, this story comes weighted with the knowledge that Wallace committed suicide in 2008, but the film amounts to much more than a melancholy depiction of a man's torturous struggle with depression. The film hastens to deflate just such easy assumptions as Wallace and Lipsky parry and thrust over trying to arrive at anything like a definitive insight about fiction, Infinite Jest, fame, publicity, popular and academic cultures, legacy, success, and the secret to happiness. Eisenberg’s role doesn’t require much of a stretch, but he’s excellent all the same in sympathetically projecting Lipsky’s insecurities, jealousies, false bravado, and questionable but self-justified ethics.

Wallace ruefully muses to Lipsky, “You could write this up a hundred different ways.” And though this isn’t the Great American Film, its prismatic philosophical and cultural observation as two men traverse a middle-American main drag of chain and fast food restaurants, the Mall of America, Wallace’s living space, and each other’s touchy headspaces offers plenty of angles on the true value of the subjective fictions and supposedly objective non-fictions some create and others consume, the stories we tell others and the narratives we construct for ourselves. In that regard, The End of the Tour implicitly declines to excuse itself, both for its own take on Wallace and for failing to provide comfortingly unambiguous answers to the questions that haunt us.

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 11/3/2015

Distributor: Lionsgate

Lionsgate sends home The End of the Tour in a Blu-ray + Digital HD special edition with redoubtable A/V specs and all the right bonus features to please fans of the film. Picture quality isn't of the usual razor-sharp, color-boosted digital sheen seen on most titles, but it is faithful to the source material and presumably maximizing it for the Blu-ray format. Most of the time, The End of the Tour does look well-resolved in detail and texture, including grain, albeit with the hushed hues and low contrast intended by the filmmakers. Low light has always presented challenges to resolution, and that's nominally the case here, though it doesn't cause major distractions (only minor, fleeting compression artifacts attendant to the grainier grain of shadowy scenes). Overall, this transfer handily retains the film's visual qualities that were on display in theaters. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix doesn't field many challenges from the film's action, which comes almostly entirely in the form of front-and-center talk, but there's some rear-channel ambience when the characters get out in public for drives and mall crawls, and the score and source music, in their full-bodied treatment, open up the mix on occasion.

Primary among the bonus features is an audio commentary with director James Ponsoldt, writer Donald Margulies and actor Jason Segel. While it would have been intriguing to have Jesse Eisenberg's participation as well, hearing Ponsoldt and Margulies (the latter once a teacher of the former) talk in depth about the thinking behind adapting David Lipsky's book is a treat, and it's equally interesting to hear Segel expound on becoming David Foster Wallace under intense scrutiny. "Behind the Tour" (24:41, HD) rounds up substantial B-roll footage of the shoot to comprise a making-of featurette that's a cut above the customary EPK style. The self-explanatory "A Conversation with Composer Danny Elfman" (8:24, HD) allows the composer to explain his mandate and approach to scoring this film. Lastly, a selection of "Deleted Scenes" (7:30, HD) ensures that this disc doesn't go without any of the core bonus features of a satisfying special edition.


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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