Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A24 A-to-Z: #24. "The End of the Tour" (2015)

Scene from The End of the Tour
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

The End of the Tour
Released: July 31, 2015 
Release Number: 24
Directed By: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Anna Chlumsky
Plot: The story of the five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky and acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace, which took place right after the 1996 publication of Wallace's groundbreaking epic novel, "Infinite Jest."
Major Awards:
Independent Film Spirit Awards
-Best Male Lead (Jason Segel) - Nominated
-Best Screenplay

If there's one thing that 2015 will symbolize for A24, it will be the moment when they began being taken seriously. While they had yet to officially receive Oscar nominations by late-July, the films Ex-Machina and Amy were surefire hits that would light up the red carpet. It was so much infused in the critical acclaim that director James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour failing to get a nomination seems even more tragic. Even then, it was another gem from the studio, featuring the familiar "actor playing against type" role played by Jason Segel in a drama that on paper shouldn't have been as interesting. It was a story of reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and author David Foster Wallace (Segel) discussing everything over the course of five days. What the story lacks in high flying action - though there is a reference to John Woo's Broken Arrow - it makes up for in sentimentality and provocative thought.

In theory, Rolling Stone journalist Lipsky was supposed to publish the book sometime after their interview in 1996. However, it was postponed when there was a need to publish more "urgent" stories, such as the death of Blind Melon's singer Shannon Hoon. The book wouldn't be released until 2010 following the death of Wallace, at which point the novel became a bestseller and received critical acclaim. By 2011, Pulitzer-winning playwright Donald Margulies decided to adapt the story. He was widely considered to be a big fan of Wallace in general and did his best to create an honest  portrayal of the writer. It would be Wallace's first cinematic depiction, so he had to make it count. By 2013, his screenplay was on the Blacklist for best unpublished screenplays.

In that same year, Ponsoldt had directed his first film for A24 with The Spectacular Now. It was a decent hit, and a noteworthy entry for their Freshman year. It makes sense then that he would become the first director to make a second film with the studio, this time teaming with his college playwright teacher, Margulies. Much like his mentor, there was a shared love for "Infinite Jest," of which most of the central cast loved dearly. Eisenberg would sign on immediately because of this. Segel, who was initially skeptical, eventually found a human connection and started a book club just to get a better sense of the book. He claims that when he started, the cashier he bought the book from claimed that she's had too many boyfriends who owned an unread copy of the book. Still, Wallace's influence was clearly felt all over the film.

Eisenberg would consult Lipsky in order to better understand how to portray a journalist. Despite the actual events taking place in Illinois, the film was shot in Michigan during 2014. Lipsky's memoir, "Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself" served as the template for the film, though Lipsky provided unreleased recorded audio from the interviews to help provide a clearer perspective. In spite of the book being heavily attributed to help from Wallace's family, the film didn't receive the same endorsement. In fact, there was a personal boycott that forced the cast and crew to publicly state their intention to tell Wallace's story respectfully. An anonymous family member would later claim to have seen it, stating mostly positive things. Still, it was the second back-to-back film from A24 (after Amy) to feature some controversial backlash from the subject's family members.

The film would premiere at Sundance 2015 where it began to receive critical acclaim. Many were surprised by Segel's performance, mostly knowing him for his comedic work. It was here that A24 bought distribution rights and added it to the impressive list of films they released that year. The film would receive a late summer release where it would earn $3 million at the box office. By this point the entire Oscar campaign had been in effect. Segel would participate in interviews where he talked about preparing for the film, creating a sense of his personal connection to Wallace's artistic struggles. A24 was banking on the film being a patented sleeper hit, earning some Oscar love in the process. It was the perfect formula, of which The End of the Tour was one of many A24 films vying for in 2015.

On another note, the film had the critical acclaim to back up the Oscar push. On critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a 91%, making it another one of the best reviewed A24 movies to date. J. Olsen of Cinemixtape wrote that "Segel sells the performance by not overselling it, comfortably meeting viewers halfway between imitation and obfuscation." Tim Brayton of the Antagony and Ecstasy was more critical, claiming that "Better as the story of an average man admiring and fearing a genius, than as the story of that genius himself."The few that disliked it tended to fall in line with Dennis Harvey of Variety's opinion, who claimed that "There's too little drama and insight to this dramatization of journalist David Lipsky's encounter with the late 'Infinite Jest' novelist David Foster Wallace." With almost universal acclaim, the film managed to end up on several Best of 2015 lists, including The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Vogue. Despite its big push, it didn't get any major awards outside of two Spirit Award nominations.

For a film that would become a minor work in A24's second renaissance, The End of the Tour managed to have a great impact in its approach to story. It was also evidence that the studio's niche formula of actors playing against type could hold their own in serious Oscar consideration. While it wouldn't be as successful as later 2015 film Room in this vein, it was a sign that things were changing. The reputation was growing significantly, and it would only continue to do so with the next film. It would be the second adaptation of Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn's work, and featured Mad Max: Fury Road's Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult. It may have been a return to the well of DirecTV outputs, but maybe Dark Places was going to be the film to change its reputation. Maybe, just maybe, it could turn the tide for Theron or Hoult just like the previous film had done for Segel.

Up Next: Dark Places (2015)

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