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Biography/Drama Film Review 2015: "The End Of The Tour" (Directed by James Ponsoldt, Jason Segel/Jesse Eisenberg)
If you thought James Ponsoldt's first major feature, 2013's "The Spectacular Now" was a hard-hitting, frank coming-of-age story that goes unequaled, the director's follow-up will surely shake your very foundations and perception of that earlier film as merely his warm-up. While that film offered two very receptive performances from leads Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley with a rounded supporting cast such as Bob Odenkirk and Jennifer Jason Leigh and a satisfying script, it never really transcended its genre or reached the level of unforgettable majesty that "The End Of The Tour" will indisputably be remembered as. Ponsoldt, along with his contemporaries like Noah Baumbach and The Duplass Brothers, are fast moving voices of their generation and of an American New Wave sensibility that has not been seen for many decades.
The best thing about this movie is that you really don't have to have read anything by Wallace to take away from its significance and to cull important understands about materialism, art, literature, the high price of fame and what the toll can be if you are at the epicenter of a counter-culture movement. Wallace, a notoriously mercurial writer (think J.D Salinger only more idiosyncratic), was one of those savants whom you'd rarely ever come across in a life time. He was always a man at a crossroads and his meteoric rise to fame seemingly overnight in 1996 with the release of his first book "Infinite Jest" both scared him and made him confront the fact that this may just have been his peak. Flustered at the age of 36, Wallace's uneasiness with this fame and suddenly becoming deliriously popular was definitely deemed regrettable. It was a classic clash of his personality and his circumstance as the two became enmeshed which would later lead to Wallace feeling stifled and suffocated. As was reported in 2008, Wallace's unprecedented suicide was "the literary shock heard around the world" particularly by David Lipsky, the famed Rolling Stones reporter who spent just under one week with the solitude-craving Wallace chronicling his book tour and examining the behind the scenes machinations of Wallace's untraceable mind. Fortunately, the film strays very far from "standard" biopic format because Ponsoldt and his screenwriters more than realize that Wallace was no ordinary figure. Their collective decisions pay off remarkably.
We are first introduced to Lipsky in 2008 as a 42-year old reporter who has had a very long and illustrious career at Rolling Stone. He is on the leg of his own book tour for the book that inspired this film and is giving a public reading with reading selective chapters. Lipsky begins to recount one of his chief inspirations - his fabled encounter with Wallace that wound up amounting to in his words "the greatest conversation that I've ever had". No small feat for a journalist who has went on-record with movie stars, music legends and other luminaries. Unbelievably and inextricably, Wallace joined their ranks and as Lipsky painstakingly recounts, Wallace never desired fame and it shook his psyche to its core - stripping away the many layers of a guarded and deeply private man. Upon learning of his suicide, the film jumps back 12 years and we see a then-30 year old Lipsky trying to persuade his editor to cover something other than "fluff" pieces. He wants to cover important issues and influential people and makes his case known while constantly being shot down each time. He soon discovers that his smitten girlfriend has picked up a copy of Wallace's debut book and sooner than later Lipsky decides to tackle the 1000+ page mammoth. Rushing to his editor, Lipsky takes one last stand and says that Rolling Stone hasn't covered anyone in the literary world in the history of its existence and his editor caves toward giving him the assignment he's always wanted - to go on the road with Wallace for his book tour.
From the start, the framing device used here is really remarkable. Operating within a strict 5-day timetable with an occasional flash forward here and there, this movie is confined to very few locations - Wallace's home, a public reading, plenty of driving with Wallace's peppy escort (played exceedingly well by the always jumpy Joan Cusack), and cafes where the two Dave's wax poetic on life's existential questions and concerns, dreams and hopes, humors and trepidation. Ponsoldt makes an immediate case that the two Dave's couldn't be more dissimilar - Lipsky wants what Wallace has and Wallace pleads for Lipsky's "everyday guyness" which is something he makes pointedly clear that has alluded him since he came into the national spotlight. Eisenberg's Lipsky, as he plays him, is comprised of two or three different performances from his still-young career all rolled into one. We see an amalgamation from his characters in 2009's "Adventureland", 2011's "Zombieland" and the 2012 Woody Allen film "To Rome With Love". While by no means a stretch for the actor, his command of Lipsky was the most fully-fleshed and insightful portrayal since his detestable and possibly true-to-life take on Mark Zuckerberg in 2010's groundbreaking David Fincher-directed "The Social Network".
Jason Segel, on the other hand, redefined what Hollywood and filmgoers have thought of him up to this point. Previously seen as a comic relief supporting player or an affable and well-meaning best friend like in 2009's "I Love You Man" and his breakout role as one of the derelict freaks with a heart of gold Nick Andopolis in the Judd Apatow produced and Paul Feig created early 2000s cult favorite show "Freaks & Geeks", Segel's Wallace signaled an evolutionary step forward for the actor that is sure to make him a frontfrunner at next year's Academy Awards. Not only does he nail the facial ticks and mannerisms and Wallace's unique speech patterns, but he relishes the power of silence and of acting really just with his eyes to convey a wealth of emotion and power without uttering a single word. His performance is utterly transcendent and re-affirms him as someone to keep on your radar. The dynamism between he and Eisenberg is what keeps this film from landing in traditional biopic territory. I'd go so far as to call it an anti-biopic as it doesn't observe traditional structure with the backstory of the artist, troubled times, etc. "The End Of The Tour" represents one of the best instances of telling a story through character and than those characters equal the action. Replacing shoot-em-ups with rapid-fire dialogue reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin's best work, I found myself hurled right into the minds of both Davids as each desired different aims yet wound up becoming brothers in the end.
The movie also winds up being extremely heartbreaking and wrenching. In an age when fame can drive anyone to madness in our age of mass-media consumption and proliferation of media and identity by way of the internet and devices, Wallace's rise and fall mirrors a multitude of celebrities who got sidelined by their prestige and who resorted to drugs, attempted suicides and even crime sprees to quell the media's hyper-focused attention on them. Robin Williams, one of the latest casualties, became overwrought by thinking that his flame had long burn out. Mixing that with the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's, his mind and rational thought process was too damaged to break through to him and divert such a travesty from occurring. Wallace's descent mirrors that of poet Dylan Thomas or Virginia Wolf. Both suffered from crippling depression (same as Wallace) except Wallace's many essays don't overtly illuminate his battles. It is through the prism of this fine film that Ponsoldt and Lipsky's memoir from which this film was based called "Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself" banded together to forge a triumphant portrait of one of the most compelling but confounded American authors and artists. This film is ESSENTIAL viewing for any aspiring writer and culturally aware human being. It is one of the most rewarding films I've ever watched and will no doubt make it in to my top five before this year is out.