As I twirled words around in my head, seeking the right opening sentence to efficiently establish why I think The End of the Tour is the best film of 2015, I landed on an introductory declaration that felt exactly on target. It also seemed familiar, though. To be safe, I revisited my original review of James Ponsoldt’s understated triumph only to discover that I was about to inadvertently repeat myself, right down to the use of the adverb “devilishly.” I prefer to think that this means there’s an admirable consistency to my connection to the film, rather than the far less agreeable notion that I don’t have any original thoughts to offer. I admire The End of the Tour because it burrows into the tricky nature of creative genius, especially in a modern era that operates with an immediacy of reaction, with celebration and backlash and reassessment all spinning in overlapping succession as if they’ve been tossed into a turbine. Praise can be smothering and stultifying. Admiration can curdle into corrosive jealousy. Complexity breeds genial incomprehension that withers the spirit. If intellectual heroes aren’t hollow, they might reside in a far more dire realm, in which they wish to be emptier than they actually are, freed from the burden of living up to their own philosophical potency. In a way, The End of the Tour is a funkier, freer version of Amadeus, with Salieri’s agony of inadequacy experienced over junk food and dismissible pop culture.
The film comes at its complicated drama through a flawed attempt at journalism. David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), somewhat adrift in his new position as a Rolling Stone staff writer, suggests a piece on David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), ascendent on the exalting reception for the just published Infinite Jest. Somewhat unexpectedly, given the noted ambivalence Wallace felt about his swelling fame, Lipsky is invited to join the author on the final leg of his promotional book tour. What follows is a protracted exchange that intertwines fleeting camaraderie with the predatory invasiveness of a profile writer desperate to find the angle that will distinguish his article. It is at once simplicity itself and as psychologically layered as can be. Grounded almost entirely in conversations, many of them one-on-one between the two loads, the film is abundantly stuffed with fascinating dynamics and stealthy insights. Eisenberg’s performance as Lipsky could have easily been a carbon copy of one of his prior iron-eyed, self-destructively bright boy-men, and been plenty effective in that mode. Instead, he peels back the need and envy of the character to provide the film its dark, stressed heart.
If Eisenberg is the heart, Segel is the soul. In a performance that truly merits the description “revelatory,” Segel taps into the wariness of an unsteady intellect. The cult of personality surrounding Wallace is significant enough that Segel was dogged by complaints from the moment his casting was announced. They were as understandable as they were, ultimately, unfounded. Beyond superficial physical adjustments, the actor eschews cheap impersonation to focus on the inner life and the driving dissatisfaction of the man, suggesting the currents of misery that would be his mortal undoing without explicitly signaling the troubles the lay ahead. It is remarkably free of overt embellishment. Segel honors the man he plays by embodying him, finding moving truths in the process.
Ponsoldt’s skilled direction smartly lets the performances illuminate the film, trusting that he need not default to panicky editing or antsy camera tricks to add spark to the talky narrative. The film is still visually interesting, using wise framing and delicate patience to accentuate the comparatively quiet drama of well-charged minds engaging in little skirmishes of escalating irritation. The filmmaker is at at his boldest when he is at his most withdrawn, gently wiping away his authorial fingerprints. The strength of the characters and the nuance of their relationship is enough to carry the film. Indeed those assets — bolstered by empathetic acting and an artful repurposing of the actual words the Lipsky captured on tape when he inserted himself into Wallace’s world — are the only things that could imbue The End of the Tour with the proper levels of discovery. It is Ponsoldt’s achievement that he had the wisdom, the care, and the confidence to take this fine material and spin it into exemplary cinema.