Monday, November 30, 2015

Review: "The End of the Tour" is an Entertaining Form of Writer's Therapy

Left to right: Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel
In the realm of movies and TV, there are few stories as immediately compelling to writers as that of the frustrated writer. It's become a trope to make stories that are essentially about the process and overcoming personal and mental anguish just to find your self worth. That is why they should be more grating than their lovingly crafted payoffs suggest. However, films like Adaptation., American Splendor, and Stranger Than Fiction choose to disagree. In the case of director James Ponsoldt's biggest film to date The End of the Tour, it's not so much about understanding the craft, but understanding the feeling of self-worth. It's a subject that doesn't get breached much elsewhere, but is given a great comical and somber effect in a film that succeeds in making the mundane into something far more fascinating than the 5 W's would ever allow.

To general audiences, there's something unprecedented about the celebrity author. There are those that write profound, even influential, works that change the world. However, the ratio is too high of those that are content to just make a living. Writers are generally introverts, likely to communicate better with paper than with their own family. Fame wasn't something built for writers who loathe having to field questions regarding "What inspires you?" That's why in 1996 when David Foster Wallace (played here by Jason Segel) became famous, it felt like a burden. Add in Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), and it turns into a nightmare, only defended against with humor and buzz word responses. It's the general attitude that brings the shy Wallace to life as he slowly unravels with Lipsky, whose fiction writing career is going into the opposite direction.

The film feels geared for writers to talk about writing. It doesn't seem likely that audiences outside of this profession/interest group will get anything out of The End of the Tour. Everything that's powerful about the conversations feels used more for emotional connection than plot developments. This is also likely because these two individuals embody the writing experience in full, with Lipsky playing superego to Wallace's ego. The film tells the story as if in a therapeutic fashion, with most of the gratifying moments coming from mundane areas of interest, notably how Alanis Morissette is a goddess. Even if Wallace has a very low energy attitude about him, he is an eccentric who doesn't watch TV and has strict rules about culture that are both rebellious and depressingly disconnected. He is anomaly that never feels answered, yet his pop culture opinions give him an endearment.

The biggest highlight comes from Segel's performance. While known for his comedies, he plays the long haired, unkempt Wallace as he tours in support of his career best "Infinite Jest." The modest, quiet demeanor comes across as the basis for his reluctant hero. What does he need to save? In a sense, he needs to save his personal image, of which he's constantly self-editing. He doesn't want to be famous. It gives him anxiety. At the same time, he sees writing as his only savior from the loneliness that comes with his reluctance. The film does exceptional work in explaining the value in reading, and how it connects people both literally and figuratively. Even if Wallace comes across as an insecure and often hypocritical individual, he's often got his heart in the right place. For those (like myself) who don't know Wallace the real-life writer, some of the value is lost in performance. Even then, it feels like a mirror to a deeper and more personal look at how writers see each other. Lipsky is jealous of Wallace's success. Wallace is curious of Lipsky's relative anonymity. Together, they form a void of endearment.

Ponsoldt continues to be one of the most promising newer directors out there. With a penchant for capturing compelling characters in their in between moments, he has been excellent on capturing great performances from his actors, including Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Smashed) and Miles Teller & Shailene Woodley (The Spectacular Now). In The End of the Tour, he does it once again with Segel and Eisenberg. What could easily be a dull interview-based movie comes to life as a collection of what interests a writer. Even if the biggest emotional beats don't come until the third act, there's plenty of nuance in Wallace's reluctance to sight see along his tour. There's plenty in the two discussing irrelevant topics. While it never feels as strongly paced as it does in The Spectacular Now, it still does impressive work of turning the film into a creative arts version of therapy. Thankfully, it's also charming and funny enough to fill in any gaps.

The End of the Tour is a film about writers in a scenario that most writers only dream about. It's one of influence and power; two things that are nerve racking. While the film does solid work on capturing the dynamic, it also feels more grounded in a formula than Ponsoldt's other features. Even then, those films didn't have as great of discussions about how culture unites us and inevitably fills up emotional absences in the process. I am unfamiliar with Wallace or his work (Lipsky too for that matter), but I enjoyed their version here. They were compelling, eccentric, and able to be nuanced enough to remain enigmatic. It's a film worthy of exploring, if just for its excellent handle on conversations. They may not matter in context, but they are best seen in the big picture, where it gives us a better sense as to who these people are and what drives them to be that way.

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