To put a pin in the beauty of The End of the Tour is a philosophical venture potentially as challenging as James Ponsoldt‘s latest accomplishment. Detailing a three-day exchange between Rolling Stones journalist David Lipsky and rock star author David Foster Wallace, Ponsoldt’s film is talky and emotionally whirling, thick with dry-mouthed moments and cemented with a kind of human earnestness that cannot be bought or bartered for.
Ponsoldt’s again adapts from the page – this time working from memoirs penned by Lipsky following Wallace’s suicide at 46. Unlike most, he biopics like a pro – offering a detailed potrait of a series of days that succeeds at trying to sum up the two men at its center as they undergo a short but massively influential union of minds.
Taking us 12 years back in time to the tail end of a book tour, David Foster Wallace is an overnight celebrity, lionized for his best-selling existential novel, “Infinite Jest”, but uncomfortable in accepting his new VIP status. Infatuated by Wallace’s work and hunting for a hot story, David Lipsky – then a Rolling Stones writer still cutting his teeth – takes off to do a profile on the celebrated writer and quickly finds a human counterpart in Wallace’s nervous energy and racing mind.
Jason Segel one-ups himself as Wallace, delivering a performance well beyond any potential he’s shown before. Breathy and withdrawn, he feels so desperately real. Though quiet, Segel’s performance is orchestral; singing in shades and colors that traverse the whole human spectrums. Willing to bear for all his foibles in intimate and profound strokes, he’s the kind of tortured human soul that we can all relate to on one level or another. Jesse Eisenberg is equally good, driving home the harsh realities to balance out Wallace’s raw pontificating. Eisenberg is so tapped into the minutia of shifts in emotional atmosphere that he can communicate volumes with the faintest flicker of his eyelid. Neither has ever been better.
They verbally spar; intellectual gladiators playing a game of one-upmanship. Unsure if they’re best friends or worst enemies, the profile turns to each trying to cut to the heart of why being a human is just so downright hard. As they charge through raw, bookish dialogues, Ponsoldt’s intention to craft a love letter to conversation is crystalline.
The End of the Tour has been likened to Richard Linklater’s masterful Before series and for good reason. Ponsoldt trades in Linklater’s picturesque ambles through European landscapes for the snowy purgatory of middle America (namely Minnesonalopis). His tour takes us to crummy bookstores, down blistery cruvaces and to the national heritage site that is the Mall of America – a literal monument to the glory of consumerism.
As such, his film makes for a pressing portrait of our nation, its values and its populace. But even more importantly, it welcomes us with open arms to this imitate portrait of two brooding, depressive beings.
As a college student, I wrote my senior thesis on “the Meaning of Life” through the lens of Nietzche’s “Thus Spake Zarathurstra”. It was a wordy but personally meaningful dissection of individual value systems and was my best attempt to cut to the bone of why we do what we do. Classic philosophy student fare. Ponsoldt handles his material with the weight of a philosopher, presenting ideas that feel like they’ve always been on the tip of our tongue in such an entrancing, elegant manner that they land like hammer strikes to the sternum. He guides us through the human experience with the virtuosity of a never-to-be-forgotten college professor, going for broke and leaving you unequivocally emotionally drip-dried.
Danny Elfman drives the whole thing home with a score that elevates Ponsoldt’s emotional arches with heartfelt panache. The result is a soaring independent drama; a Socratic wax on existence itself. Both life-affirming, deeply-affecting and willing to play a dangerous game of bringing you to the brink of tears, The End of the Tour is essential watching – a lovely, beautiful tragedy that will shake you to the bone.