If you don’t know who James Ponsoldt is, you probably should. He’s a truly underrated filmmaker, best known for directing The Spectacular Now and Smashed. Both were wonderful movies that did a fantastic job of presenting damaged characters in tremendously sympathetic ways. Ponsoldt shows a remarkable gift for dealing with dark and complex subject matter — usually substance abuse — in a charming and uplifting way without compromising the severity of the issues at hand.
Ponsoldt returns with The End of the Tour, which serves as a fine example of his strengths as a director.
We open with the suicide of David Foster Wallace (here immortalized by Jason Segel, of all people) in 2008. The rest of the story takes place in flashback, as David Lipsky (played here by Jesse Eisenberg) reminisces about the five days he spent on the road with Wallace. At the time, twelve years before his demise, Wallace had just released a massively successful 1,000-page novel called “Infinite Jest”, and was touring to promote the book. Lipsky, then a columnist for the Rolling Stone, accompanied Wallace on the book tour while interviewing him for an article. The interview was never published in Rolling Stone, but after Wallace died, Lipsky repurposed his notes into a memoir called “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” which this movie was based on.
Anna Chlumsky, Mamie Gummer, Ron Livingston, and Joan Cusack make brief supporting appearances, but this movie is all about Segel and Eisenberg. Throughout this entire movie, we focus on these two characters talking about… well, just about everything. Fame, anonymity, humility, intelligence, mass media, sex, drugs, creativity, family, the list goes on and on. Just these two characters talking. And it’s endlessly fascinating to watch.
To start with, the chemistry between Eisenberg and Segel is impossibly perfect from start to finish. They’re both playing eccentric authors with tremendous intelligence, yet they’re both grounded enough to enjoy a cigarette and a cheesy ’90s action flick. There’s always a sense that these two characters are learning from each other, and they play off each other so beautifully that it’s genuinely compelling to watch them develop a friendship.
That said, there’s always an undercurrent of tension. After all, Lipsky is there to write his article, and everyone knows it. So there’s always the possibility that Wallace may not always be completely even with his interviewer, and we see firsthand that Lipsky has no problem bending or breaking the rules when it means getting a scoop. This does lead to cold spells between them that seem to come and go as the plot requires, but Wallace is so eccentric and Lipsky is so conniving that the mood swings kinda work.
But it’s not just the fascinating interplay or the endlessly compelling discussions that make this film so good. No, this film’s real strength is in how effortless it feels. These characters don’t talk like they’re presenting graduate theses or even reading lines from a script — it really does feel like they’re just saying whatever comes to mind in the moment.
The other huge component is of course Ponsoldt’s direction. Not only are all the conversations made to feel casual and accessible, but the whole film is beautifully immersive in its visuals. This is a sublime example of handheld camera done right, as the frame is only ever just shaky enough to provide the subconscious effect of really being there. The whole time watching this movie, I felt like I was just hanging out with these guys, driving around, eating junk food, smoking cigarettes, and trading incredible ideas about what it means to be a celebrity.
If it sounds like I’m underselling The End of the Tour, it’s only because these characters speak far more eloquently than I ever could. I don’t even want to try and say too much about what they discuss, because that might take away from the enjoyment of watching these discussions unfold for the first time.
It really does say something that 100 minutes of Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg talking to each other would make for one of the better films to come out this year. Though considering the year we’ve had so far, maybe that isn’t saying much at all. Even so, this film comes very highly recommended.