On the Road with DFW in The End of the Tour

the end of the tour

The End of the Tour
Directed by James Ponsoldt
Opens July 31

On and off the road, the two travelers of The End of the Tour are at any given point worrying about things from different, even incompatible standpoints. Doing Midwest publicity for his breakout postmodern-novel-with-a-Shakespearan-title Infinite Jest, David (Foster) Wallace (Jason Segel) frets and moans about the potential injury to his delicate psychic balance posed by fame and the side effects of the tour, and the scrutiny and exposure of his inescapable companion’s project, a Rolling Stone profile. That journalist, David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), concerns himself with the perhaps less interesting perils of completing his article with some degree of career-advancing insight and perhaps, as a budding novelist himself, with the anxieties of impressing Wallace and ultimately being recognized in literary circles of the sort Wallace is piercingly wary about. Is it a another cinematic glimpse of a densely brilliant literary mind whose foibles go on display, a thriller in which a criminal mastermind is recruited to understand the mindset of another criminal at large, or a Western in which a callow officer is tasked with ferrying a devilish prisoner cross-country?

“Just be a good guy” is the Wallace/Segel sound-bite that takes up a beat in the film’s trailer, and as has already been observed, The End of the Tour courts the risk of perpetuating the writer’s second life as a kind of self-help idol of decency and vulnerability. Bringing the hunched-shoulder loping-on-a-carpet lumber and the requisite bandanna, Segel performs Wallace with flat self-deprecation and a nimble sensitivity around Eisenberg’s distractingly rote ambitious neurotic (a persona which the author wears comfortably but as expressively as a hard shell). The End of the Tour might also be thought of as an audience with a famous person in his cluttered drawing room; playwright Donald Margulies, who broached the warhorse of artistic success in his plays Sight Unseen and Brooklyn Boy, wrote the surprisingly bearable screenplay for James Ponsoldt’s magic-trick of a film. It improbably glides along, a conversation of a film, two guys trusting each other or not, never quite with the seemingly unbottleable free forms of road movies past but sustained and touching nonetheless.

Margolies draws dialogue from Lipsky’s transcripts of his interviews, published as Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, the title poached from Wallace’s description of his upbringing (“They were really ’60s parents, and I don’t think—there was if anything a conscious attempt to not give overt direction. Although…”). As hypersensitive as Wallace-Segel is to the form, of pinning down his identity, Ponsoldt and Margolies can’t resist falling back on certain clichés of psychological conflict and resolution (what would Charlie Kaufman do?), but Segel’s performance, when it actually allows us to forget Segel for a couple of moments, expresses and to a certain extent embodies the contortions and the grace of self-consciousness.

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