The End of the Tour full movie review - A fascinating and tender study of ambition, success, hero worship, depression and daily ennui.
I've never read Infinite Jest. I don't even know what it's about, besides the themes I've gathered from watching this film now.
I do know that David Foster Wallace's novel is a 1,000 page opus written in the mid-90s that has been ranked among the masterpieces of the 20th and 19th centuries, far surpassing his peers. It's the ultimate goal of an artist with any amount of ego they will or will not admit to, beyond touching a generation but also adding something canonical to culture in a timeless way. I was firmly hooked onto the premise of The End of the Tour and invested into what it had to explore.
Not only am I a sucker for films I can directly identify with like this, but I adore films that pry apart hero worship. That's why I love my all-time favourite film, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James, besides its splendid grandeur. The End of the Tour is a grounded version, as Lipsky's undercover agenda is to try to steal Wallace's secrets or at least see what it's like to accomplish his own dream. The film strips away myths and glamour, keeping the air dusty and rugged, focusing on them as only tender human beings rather than figures revelling in fame. It's a study of ambition and success in the face of depression and daily ennui.
Films as understated as this usually aren't the type to linger and grow on me. Nor is it the type to offer consolation when I'm feeling down as it makes no effort to offer warm sentiment with its chilly setting and rocky acquaintance between the two main characters. But it's gratifying and fascinating to find that someone who has achieved what David Foster Wallace has achieved still sometimes feels no different from normalcy. Not unsatisfied, but certainly waves of feeling underwhelmed relative to what he expected.
In many ways, Lipsky's encounter with Wallace is underwhelming for him too. There's something very endearing about the way Lipsky approaches the interview as if he's about to make his next best friend, but Wallace soon cuts him down when he gets too close, crushing him and us back down to reality. Jesse Eisenberg gives a performance more sensitive than he's done in a while, even more sensitive than the meek side of last year's diptych The Double. However, he's outshined by his unlikely co-star Jason Segel, who although is irritating at first, eventually grows on you like a big lug, and imbues all of David Foster Wallace's many compelling contradictions with expert nuance.
Despite the snow, their chemistry is electric, and while its comic sensibilities are aiming for chortles and chuckles, I had a big smile on my face for the whole first half of the film. Enough to earn an equally dour frown when their tenuous friendship is threatened by an arbitrary misunderstanding. It's a low-key film, but it hit my core with its stimulating existentialism regarding the low-key days in our life and at our lowest, the depression episodes of complete numbness. Wallace's eventual suicide is mostly an elephant in the room, but the film tries to connect you with him rather than consider itself a cautionary tale.
But the film isn't a sombre nonfiction My Dinner With Andre. What pushes The End of the Tour to another level is in the way it's operating on many ironies from its construction. One of its points is how idols and talents are represented in the media. Wallace refuses to give himself up because he knows Lipsky will edit the narrative in whatever sells best, and like all of us, he would be most comfortable to edit it himself. But the film is a representation of him as an idol. The unedited tapes again are a representation of him as an idol. It's inescapable and the narratives of our lives are formed by the memories of others.
There's also a statement to be made in Wallace's casting. The film makes a point that Wallace's addiction was to television as opposed to his vice with drugs and that's a theme of Infinite Jest. So they cast Segel, a huge TV star in a bingeable TV show, and one completely believable to sit in front of the television all day. It's a thought-provoking reflection on the vicious cycles of how we spend our lives on a daily basis, if you succumb to routines in front of screens like I do. That time adds up. Even if you're achieving or trying to achieve something on the side.
This film is the best example of why James Ponsoldt is one of cinema's most promising directors, perhaps the most promising director. Starting with the rough-but-worthy Smashed and then following it up with the didn't-have-to-be-nearly-this-good The Spectacular Now, he's on an upward trajectory that shows no signs of slowing. Perhaps The Spectacular Now was overzealous in hindsight, but what wrapped me up in it so much was its vibrant cinematography and wonderful wistful score. It captures teenage anxiety like this captures adult anxiety.
Here, Ponsoldt gives everything to his actors, just lets them play with Donald Margulies's insightful and fluid script, and it's paid off thusly. He's accomplished something special here and the best thing is that there's still a lot more room to grow given the limits he's set himself. It's too complex to be summed in a nutshell but it's a film about living up to your own expectations and the expectations of others and if there's anything to take away, it's to wind that pressure gauge down to a more comfortable degree. After this, I am thoroughly refreshed with priorities well adjusted. Next dose of your filmmaking please, Ponsoldt.